Object Timeline

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Ptolemy's great book

Date: 1496

This book summarises Claudius Ptolemy’s theories – the basis of astronomy for over a thousand years. Around AD 150, Ptolemy wrote a work in Greek outlining known theories of astronomy. During the Middle Ages this was lost in Europe, but translated and widely used by Arabic astronomers who called it al-majisti (the greatest).

Latin and Greek translations of Arabic works brought Ptolemy’s ideas back to Europe in the 1400s. This copy of the book shows an early example of recycling: it is bound in vellum that was originally used for church music.

An Earth-centred cosmos

Date: 1500–99
Made In: Germany

This model depicts Ptolemy’s Earth-centred cosmos. The bands illustrate the motion of the Sun, Moon and stars. Armillary spheres were used in medieval times to teach priests how to calculate the hours of prayer at sunrise and sunset.

Portraits of noblemen often included an armillary sphere to suggest wisdom and learning. More recently, novelist Umberto Eco chose the armillary sphere as a gruesome murder weapon in his 1983 book The Name of the Rose.

Copernicus changes the cosmos

Date: 1543

Nicolaus Copernicus’s book, published shortly after the author’s death in 1543, offered scholars a new vision of the cosmos. Making the Sun rather than the Earth the centre of the universe offered a solution to many puzzling observations of the planets, although it would be many years before the controversial theory was widely accepted.

This is a first edition of the book, one of only about 260 that survive.

Skywatching at sea

Date: 1580-88
Made In: London

In the 1500s sailors needed to measure the angle of the Sun or the Pole Star above the horizon to help determine their latitude – not an easy thing to do on a pitching deck. The mariner’s astrolabe has cut-out sections to prevent buffeting from the wind and a heavy brass ring to keep it steady.

This replica is based on an original thought to have been on board a ship in the Spanish Armada of 1588.

Silver stars

Date: 1601-1700
Made In: Middle East

The silver stars on this globe are labelled with their Arabic names. We still use many Arabic names to describe the stars today – in the constellation of Orion the Hunter, the star Rigel is named after the Arabic word for ‘foot’.

Arabic mathematicians would have used globes like this one to assist with astronomical calculations and to refine calendars.

Star catcher

Date: 1607-18
Made In: Antwerp

The astrolabe was the main astronomical instrument before the telescope. It could be used to tell the time, determine star positions at particular latitudes and predict future astronomical events.

Each curly pointer corresponds to a bright star. On this astrolabe you can see a tulip shape in the framework – the signature style of the renowned Arsenius family workshop in Flanders.

Kepler's astronomy

Date: 1609

Johannes Kepler’s book, outlining his theories of planetary motion, made the radical claim that the planets move in ellipses, not perfect circles. Kepler’s work provided significant support for the Copernican theory of a Sun-centred universe.

Kepler’s theories were based on data collected by astronomer Tycho Brahe. He had to make thousands of calculations to work out the peculiarities of Mars’s orbit, describing the experience as ‘my war with Mars.’

The starry messenger

Date: 1610
Made In: Venice

In this book Galileo reported the astronomical capabilities of his new spyglass. His drawings of the pitted lunar surface and Jupiter’s moons provided evidence to support theories of a Sun-centred Solar System.

Sidereus nuncius could also be considered Galileo’s job application for a position at court in Florence. He called his newly discovered satellites of Jupiter ‘Medicean stars’ to impress the Grand Duke Cosimo II de Medici.

Galileo's spyglass

Date: Original c. 1610

This is a replica of one of only two surviving telescopes made by Galileo. He made his first telescope after hearing descriptions of a new device that had begun circulating around Europe in late 1608. He refined the design into a powerful tool for astronomy.

The ornate decoration on the wood and leather tube suggests that Galileo made this telescope for demonstration to his patron Cosimo de Medici, rather than for regular use.

The book that led to Galileo's trial

Date: 1632
Made In: Florence

In this book Galileo compared the Earth-centred Ptolemaic and Sun-centred Copernican systems. He wrote in Italian, rather than the Latin of scholars, to reach a wider audience.

Galileo clearly favoured the Copernican system, but he misjudged the reception the book would receive from the Catholic Church. He was tried for heresy, forced to recant his ideas, and ended his life under house imprisonment.

Tycho Brahe's star castle

Date: 1634
Made In: Amsterdam

Nobleman Tycho Brahe was one of the foremost astronomers of the pre-telescopic age. His underground observatory on the Danish island of Hvaena was shielded from the wind, allowing him and his assistants to measure the stars accurately using a variety of instruments.

Tycho called the observatory Stjerneborg, or ‘star castle’. Data from his observations were later used to develop the laws of planetary motion that supported Copernicus’s theory of a Sun-centred universe.

Newton does it with mirrors

Date: Original 1668-71

This is a replica of the first successful reflecting telescope, built by Isaac Newton. It used mirrors instead of lenses to focus light, giving a better performance for a smaller instrument.

The circular mark near the front of the telescope tube shows that Newton tried out where the eyepiece would go, but filled in his first attempt and made a new one.

Japanese star map

Date: 1677
Made In: Japan

This star map was made by Harumi Shibukawa, official astronomer to the Japanese Edo court. He was one of the first people to use a telescope in Japan after the instrument was introduced by European traders.

The map combines Shibukawa’s systematic observations with concepts from Chinese astrology, so that the stars could be used to predict events in different regions of Japan.

Newton's system of the world

Date: 1687

This book, first published in 1687, is one of the most important scientific works ever written. It outlined Isaac Newton’s law of universal gravitation. This law applied to everything, from why apples fall to the ground to why planets orbit the Sun.

Principia provided a successful mathematical description of how the world works. It was the backbone of physics for more than 200 years, until Einstein published his general theory of relativity.

The clock of the Sun

Date: 1700-99
Made In: Iran

Horary quadrants determine the time from the altitude of the Sun. This Islamic instrument may have been used to calculate prayer times.

Highly portable, it can be used from any location on Earth. The lines on the front represent the motion of the Sun across the sky.

Night-time

Date: 1702
Made In: Bristol

This nocturnal allows you to tell the time at night. As the Earth turns, the stars appear to move across the sky. Tracking their positions allows you to use the night sky as a giant clock.

Set the date on the outer ring and view the Pole Star through the centre hole. Next, turn the long arm until it lines up with certain stars and read the time off the inner dial.

Location, location

Date: 1770-80
Made In: London

Until satellite navigation became widespread, this type of instrument was a vital tool for sailors and aviators. It is called a sextant because the metal arc is one-sixth of a circle. Looking through the coloured glass filters, an observer could measure the altitude of bright objects such as the Sun or Moon without risking eye damage.

Captain Cook used a sextant similar to this one to navigate around the Pacific islands in the 1770s.

Reflections of the stars

Date: 1770-1820
Made In: England

A mirror like this sits at the bottom of William Herschel’s telescope. It is made of highly polished speculum, a mix of copper and tin.

Herschel was obsessed with making perfect mirrors to accurately gather light from faraway objects. His sister Caroline described having to force morsels of food into his mouth while he continued to polish for hours.

Music of the heavens

Date: 1778
Made In: Bath

Before finding fame as an astronomer, William Herschel made a living as a musician. Caroline Herschel sang at this 1778 performance of Handel’s Messiah. She abandoned a soprano career to assist her brother in his astronomical research.

The telescope that found a planet

Date: c.1780
Made In: Bath

This is William Herschel’s own telescope. It may be the one he used in his back garden in the spring of 1781 to study what appeared to be a comet. Repeated observation revealed it was a new planet – the first such discovery in written history. Today we call this planet Uranus.

The planet 'Herschell' on the map

Date: c. 1781-1800

This chart calls the seventh planet ‘Herschell’, after the man who discovered it in 1781. The name ‘Uranus’ only became common decades later.

The distance table shows the new planet twice as far from the Sun as Saturn. William Herschel had doubled the size of the known Solar System.

Discovering invisible light

Date: 1795-1805
Made In: London

This may be the prism used by William Herschel when he accidentally discovered invisible radiation in 1800. Using the prism, he split sunlight into its different colours and measured their temperatures. He noticed that the temperature was highest beyond the red light, in a region now known as infrared.

By royal appointment

Date: 1800
Made In: Windsor

In 1800, William Herschel was paid £200 in annual salary as King’s Astronomer. His sister Caroline was paid £50 to act as his assistant, making her the first professional female astronomer.

A note from Herschel’s wife Mary says that the handwriting is that of King George III himself.

Casting horoscopes

Date: 1800-99
Made In: Central Asia

Divination plates such as this one are thought to have been used for casting horoscopes. In the inner ring you can see characters from the zodiac such as Leo the Lion, Taurus the Bull and Libra the Scales.

Although this plate features verses from the Qur’an, casting horoscopes is generally discouraged as unlawful in Islamic cultures. We have no evidence on how it was used, so it remains a puzzling and mysterious object.

A Sun-centred cosmos

Date: 1807-46
Made In: Paris

With the Sun at the centre, this model demonstrates Nicolaus Copernicus’s vision of the cosmos. The central band shows the Sun’s apparent annual path through the zodiac, while the crossed bands mark the seasons.

Copernican theory was firmly established by the time this model was made in the early 1800s. It includes recent discoveries such as the asteroids Ceres and Vesta. The model may have been used as a teaching aid or decorative item for a wealthy customer.

The comet fan club

Date: 1811-15
Made In: France

This fan was inspired by the Great Comet of 1811. The centre scene shows a seated lady with a comet-like headdress representing Venus, while spectators view the comet outside. The inscription says ‘today’s craze – Venus, or the pretend comet’.

In America the spectacular comet was blamed for a devastating earthquake, while French wine-makers claimed it produced a particularly fine vintage.

The first screen stars

Date: 1811-25
Made In: Unknown place

These slides were used to project colour images of the planets and the Great Comet of 1811. In the early 1800s travelling lecturers astounded their audiences with magic lantern shows.

Astronomy was highly fashionable at the time, and lectures were a popular way to learn about the latest ideas.

Our Solar System grows

Date: 1813-22
Made In: London

This orrery, or planetary model, shows six satellites around Uranus, the farthest planet then known. William Herschel discovered the innermost two, Titania and Oberon, in 1787. By 1798 he had reported four additional satellites. However, no other astronomer managed to see these and observations in the 1850s showed Herschel was mistaken.

We now know of almost 30 Uranian satellites. All are named after characters from Shakespeare or Pope, following a tradition started by Herschel’s son John.

World in miniature

Date: 1824
Made In: City of London

This miniature Earth globe comes with a spherical fish-skin case. The inside of the case shows how the constellations would appear in the night sky.

Globes like this were popular accessories in the 1700s and 1800s. Some of the Earth globes showed the routes of famous explorers such as Captain Cook.

The greatest show on Earth

Date: 1827
Made In: England

Here, Mr George Bartley advertises giant projections of the zodiac and a 40-metre moving model of the Solar System. Bartley was a comedian for most of the year, but when shows stopped during Lent he performed astronomy lectures to supplement his meagre income.

Like today’s IMAX films, lectures were a popular way of enjoying science in the early 1800s. Travelling astronomy lecturers tried to wow their audiences with increasingly sophisticated special effects.

Cosmic cards

Date: 1829-31
Made In: London

This pack of 52 astronomical playing cards reflects the fashion for educational toys in the early 1800s. The cards are divided into four suits according to the seasons, and contain a mix of planets and constellations.

Changing the order of the planets generates a number of different games. The instruction book implies the game was designed for learning: ‘It requires silence, attention and the exercise of memory.’

Sphere of the heavens

Date: 1830
Made In: Wuyuan

This celestial globe has an internal clockwork drive so that it turns to represent the motion of the stars. On the surface you can see the stars grouped according to Chinese constellations. The Milky Way is shown by a band of dots, and five patches represent star clusters.

Precision star-tracking

Date: 1832
Made In: London

The main job of many 19th-century astronomical observatories was making detailed observations to aid timekeeping and navigation. This instrument was used to accurately measure the height of stars crossing the meridian. Combined with readings from other instruments, this gave the star’s precise position.

Tracking the motions of stars allowed observatories to keep accurate regulator clocks, which were then used to supply time to other users.

Exclusive: Lunar life

Date: 1835
Made In: France

This picture of exotic creatures on the Moon was inspired by the Great Moon Hoax of 1835. The New York Sun reported that astronomer John Herschel had turned his powerful new telescope to the Moon and discovered man-bats, bipedal beavers and a sapphire temple.

The bogus articles are thought to have been written by reporter Richard Adams Locke in an attempt to boost the paper’s circulation.

Solar System projector

Date: 1838
Made In: Unknown place

This lantern slide projects the planets onto a wall, and has a geared system to illustrate their motion and relative speeds.

A travelling astronomy lecturer called Mr Keevil used it in Holywell in Wales on 3 May 1838, in a dazzling show demonstrating eclipses, the planets and their moons. For this fashionable event gentlemen paid 2 shillings, while ladies only paid 1.

Photography comes to astronomy

Date: 1857
Made In: Clerkenwell

This is the first instrument that was purpose built for astronomical photography. It was used at Kew and Greenwich to take daily photographs of the Sun.

Warren de la Rue took this instrument to Rivabellosa in Spain to photograph the solar eclipse of 18 July 1860. The photographs were compared with ones taken 500 km away and proved that the prominences visible during an eclipse are part of the Sun, rather than an effect of the Earth’s atmosphere.

Observing the Sun and Moon

Date: 1860-62
Made In: Kew

These photographs of the Sun and Moon were taken with the Kew Photoheliograph, the large instrument in the corner of this showcase.

The Moon image, on the right, was taken at Kew Observatory. The Sun image, on the left, was taken during an expedition to north Spain to observe the solar eclipse of July 1860. It shows a partial eclipse as the Moon crosses the Sun before blocking it out completely.

Analysing light

Date: 1868
Made In: England

This seven-prism spectroscope was designed to bend light into its different colours, allowing Norman Lockyer to identify different elements in stars.

When observing the Sun he noticed the signature of a mystery element unknown on Earth. He named it ‘helium’ after the Greek word for Sun, helios. This element was only found on Earth decades later.

Tracking sunspots

Date: September 1870
Made In: Kew

These photographs are from a series taken in September 1870 with the Kew Photoheliograph, the large instrument at the very right of this showcase. Astronomers used it to take daily photographs of the Sun.

Comparing the photographs day by day showed how features such as sunspots moved. We now know these dark spots are caused by magnetic activity on the Sun’s surface.

Astrology for kings

Date: 1870-1930
Made In: England

Astrologers made a lucrative living casting horoscopes for royalty. Kings believed that what happened in the heavens foretold events such as war and famine on Earth. But by the 1600s, astrology’s failure to make accurate predictions caused it to fall from royal favour.

This embroidery may be a political joke about the Protestant King Charles I being unduly influenced by his Catholic queen, Henrietta Maria. Although the label mentions the year 1621, many features do not match this period.

Improving the calendar

Date: 1870
Made In: Rajasthan

This is believed to be the largest Hindu astrolabe outside India. Its large size made it more accurate, helping astronomers to gather new star observations and improve their calendars.

Previous Hindu calendars had been based on tables of star positions collected by the ancient Greeks. The Sanskrit inscription on this astrolabe explains: ‘All trust in books was abandoned because of the many mistakes in them caused by scribes.’

Celestial sphere

Date: 1878
Made In: Paris

This globe features beautiful constellation figures such as Taurus the Bull and Aries the Ram. The star patterns are the reverse of what we see in the night sky, because many celestial globes depict the sky as if you were outside a sphere, looking down.

The illustrations are based on the work of 17th-century Venetian map-maker Vincenzo Coronelli. His globes became a lavish status symbol for royalty and wealthy noblemen across Europe.

Calculating longitude

Date: 1880-85
Made In: Paris

This graph enabled sailors in the 1800s to calculate their longitude. First they would measure the angle between the Moon and prominent stars using a sextant. They then needed to do several calculations to work out their longitude – this graph helped to speed up the job.

But it was still quite a laborious procedure, so when reliable chronometers were invented they soon became the preferred method of working out longitude.

Jaipurâs giant observatory

Date: 1884–86
Made In: Jaipur

The giant stone observatory at Jaipur was built for accuracy, to help improve the calendar. In 18th-century India people used a combination of the lunar-based Muslim and the solar-based Hindu systems. Both relied on observations made centuries earlier, so became increasingly unreliable.

Jaipur’s ruler, Jai Singh II, commissioned the new observatory. This model shows one instrument called the Rashivalaya Yantra, with sundials to track the Sun through each zodiac sign.

Patrick Moore's inspiration

Date: 1895
Made In: London

Sir Patrick Moore, the UK’s most famous astronomy broadcaster and author, was inspired to learn more about astronomy after reading a copy of this book when he was just 6 years old:

‘It belonged to my mother, who was mildly interested in astronomy. It wasn’t a boy’s book, but my reading was alright; I read the book and was “hooked”. I still have that book. It changed my life.’

Life on Mars?

Date: 1896-99
Made In: Paris

This Mars globe shows surface details of the Red Planet observed and named by Giovanni Schiaparelli in 1877. Schiaparelli used the word canali to describe lines that seem to run between the darker areas.

Some astronomers, particularly Percival Lowell, believed these to be irrigation channels and therefore evidence of intelligent life on Mars. But later studies revealed a barren planet, although scientists are still searching for evidence of bacterial life.

Proving Einstein's relativity

Date: 1919

In May 1919, British physicist Arthur Eddington organised a test of Einstein’s general theory of relativity. Two Royal Society teams observed a solar eclipse from Brazil and the island of Principe off west Africa.

Photographs appeared to show that the mass of the Sun had bent light from distant stars, just as Einstein had predicted. This gravitational distortion could only be observed during a total eclipse, when the Sun’s own light was masked.

Tulip or telescope?

Date: 1920s

This bronze flower sculpture, now green with age, is also a fully functional reflecting telescope. The main mirror rests in a bowl of lotus leaves, while the observer looks through the eyepiece at the top of the stem.

This is one of only 13 original Garden Telescopes known to have survived. The mirror is a later replacement – the telescope optics were designed to be removable for indoor storage, and the original was lost.

Viewing the 1927 eclipse

Date: c. 1927
Made In: Unknown place

The best views of the 1927 solar eclipse were in the north of England. There were advertisement hoardings, special postage stamps and extra trains to Yorkshire. This eclipse viewer was purchased from Croisdale’s in Leeds (note the stamped address) and used by Frederick Irving and his parents.

Lessons from the stars

Date: 1930–45
Made In: Jena

This object tells the story of two very different uses of astronomy. It was originally used to train Luftwaffe navigators and pilots in celestial navigation. Such knowledge enabled them to fly bomber aircraft towards Britain, with devastating consequences.

After the war, the projector served a more enjoyable purpose as it was used in the Science Museum’s Star Dome in the 1960s.

Sorting galaxies

Date: 1930

The famous astronomer Edwin Hubble showed that ‘spiral nebulae’ were actually galaxies of stars beyond our own galaxy, the Milky Way. He devised a system of galaxy classification that is still widely used today.

These galaxy images were taken at the Mount Wilson Observatory in California and show some of the different types of spiral galaxy.

Finding Pluto

Date: 1930

From 1930 until 2006, our Solar System had nine planets. Tiny Pluto was discovered by Clyde Tombaugh, who was searching for a predicted ‘Planet X’ that might explain oddities in the orbits of Neptune and Uranus.

Tombaugh’s photographs show the same patch of sky a few nights apart. One ‘star’ seems to have moved, indicating that it is actually a planet. Astronomers later discounted the idea of Planet X – Pluto had just been in the right place at the right time. It was controversially demoted to ‘dwarf planet’ in 2006.

Astronomy in the classroom

Date: c.1934
Made In: London

This teaching aid uses a glass sphere filled with blue liquid to represent the horizon. Adjusting the curved latitude scale and round hour dial underneath sets the stars visible for any particular location on Earth. Stars obscured by the liquid are below the horizon, so they’re not visible at this time and location.

The Astroglobe was not a success – expensive to produce and easy to break, it was ill-suited for classroom use.

Stowaway spyglass

Date: 1960-75
Made In: Luton

This unusual reflecting telescope folds up and comes apart so that it can be stored in a small pouch. It was built by Horace Dall, a noted amateur astronomer and inventor. Dall travelled around the world with this telescope.

Stars on the radio

Date: 1961

The 76-metre Lovell Telescope is the third largest steerable radio telescope in the world. It was originally built to track cosmic rays, high-energy particles from space, with radio waves. Designer Bernard Lovell drew on expertise he had developed for radar systems during the Second World War.

The telescope has been used for a wide range of astronomical and space work, including the tracking of Sputnik 1, the world’s first artificial satellite. It is now a Grade I listed building.

Discovering pulsars

Date: 1967
Made In: Cambridge

This is part of the four-acre radio telescope used in one of astronomy’s most famous chance discoveries. In 1967, student Jocelyn Bell noticed a ‘bit of scruff’ on the telescope’s data charts. Astronomers realised that the unusual signal, which repeated regularly, came from a new class of cosmic object.

Initially, these objects were nicknamed LGM, for ‘little green men’. But rather than aliens, they are rapidly spinning dense stars. They are called pulsars and over 1800 are now known.

Do it yourself

Date: 1968
Made In: Yorkshire

When 18-year-old Phil Shepherdson wanted a good telescope he decided to make one himself. Take a closer look at the tube – it is made of everyday items such as baked bean cans and wire coat hangers.

Phil’s biggest challenge was making an astronomical-quality mirror. It took months of hard graft and experiment, but he managed to hand-polish a glass blank into an accurate reflecting surface. The finished telescope gave him ‘breathtaking’ views of the Moon and Jupiter.

A new kind of star

Date: c. 1969
Made In: Cambridge

Antony Hewish used this model to teach people about pulsars – the new kind of star he and Jocelyn Bell discovered in 1967. The orange ball at the centre represents a neutron star, the incredibly dense remnant of a supernova explosion.

The curved wires show magnetic field lines. The foil tubes represent beams of radiation from the neutron star. As the star rotates, the beam turns in the direction of the Earth, and astronomers detect radio pulses. Hewish’s first version of the model was driven by a gramophone motor.

Studying the Big Bang's echo

Date: 1980s
Made In: Greenbelt

Big Bang theory is scientists’ favoured explanation for how the universe developed. It states that space expanded from an initial very hot and dense state. Predicted remnant radiation from the early universe was detected in 1964.

In 1990 the FIRAS instrument on board NASA’s COBE spacecraft measured the spectrum of this radiation. Its moving mirrors created interference patterns in a radiation beam, enabling the precise spectrum to be reconstructed.

A cracking good alien?

Date: Mid 1980s
Made In: Bristol

This little being is the actual Moon Machine that appeared in Nick Park’s first Wallace & Gromit film. The intrepid explorers found it on the Moon.

Like many fictional aliens, it looks and acts very similar to things on Earth. It appears to be a cross between a robot and a cooker. It issues parking tickets, uses a policeman’s truncheon and dreams of a skiing holiday.

How Stephen Hawking communicates

Date: 1985-95
Made In: Cambridge

Distinctive and instantly recognisable, the output from this speech synthesizer has enabled Professor Stephen Hawking to share his radical ideas about the universe with both his colleagues and the general public. He has also produced numerous popular books about his theories and has become a household name.

As he comments, ‘People are fascinated by the contrast between my very limited physical powers, and the vast nature of the universe I deal with.’

Star-mapping spacecraft

Date: c. 1985

Hipparcos was the first space mission designed to map stars. It measured the positions, distances and motion of over 2½ million stars to new degrees of precision.

The satellite’s name acknowledges the Greek astronomer Hipparchus, who systematically mapped over a thousand stars with the naked eye around 150 BC. In 2010 a new mission called Gaia will launch, aiming to map over a billion stars.

Astronomy bestseller

Date: 1988
Made In: London

Stephen Hawking’s trend-setting book has sold over 9 million copies worldwide. The theoretical astrophysicist was frustrated by the lack of books clearly explaining the origin and fate of the universe, and decided to write his own. Its runaway success made him a household name.

The book covers complex topics such as quantum mechanics and black holes, but only contains one equation: E = mc2. Hawking’s editor advised him that every equation included in the book would halve its sales.

Seeing through cosmic dust

Date: 1990s

Cosmic dust between the stars blocks out visible light, but it can be penetrated by infrared. Scientists study the infrared radiation emitted by gas molecules to find out more about cooler areas of space where stars have yet to form, or have died.

This instrument is identical to one flown on the Infrared Space Observatory, launched in 1995. This satellite revealed the presence of water in many parts of our galaxy.

Skimming X-rays

Date: Mid 1990s
Made In: çç°ç¥ç æ±¡ç¥¬

This is one of 58 cylindrical mirrors that nest together in each of the three telescopes aboard the XMM-Newton spacecraft. Incoming X-rays skim the inside of each mirror and come to a focus at the telescope’s detector.

The mirror array helps make XMM-Newton the most sensitive X-ray observatory ever launched. It sends back huge amounts of data on a range of cosmic phenomena, including X-rays emitted by hot gas falling into black holes.

Catching UV rays

Date: Mid 1990s
Made In: New York state

This mirror segment has been left without its reflective coating to reveal its lightweight glass-ceramic structure. It was used in developing NASA’s FUSE satellite. During its eight-year run, each of FUSE’s four mirrors collected ultraviolet light emitted by gas atoms in deep space and focused them onto the spacecraft’s detector.

FUSE mapped the distribution of deuterium, a heavy type of hydrogen formed during the Big Bang. By measuring how much deuterium still exists, scientists can learn more about how the young universe evolved.

Testing Einstein

Date: 1995
Made In: Palo Alto

The Gravity Probe B experiment was designed to test predictions of Einstein’s general theory of relativity: that a massive body such as the Earth should warp and twist the space-time around it.

Four spheres like this one – among the most perfect ever made – were set spinning on a spacecraft precisely pointed towards a guide star. Scientists are currently analysing the mission data to see if the angle of the spheres’ spin was altered by the warp and twist.

Last eclipse of the century

Date: 1999
Made In: Guernsey

People watching the 1999 solar eclipse could shield their eyes with a truly scientific design. This viewer’s ‘lenses’ comprised aluminised Mylar film and were set into a cardboard mount. It came free with the Royal Greenwich Observatory’s ‘Guide to the 1999 Total Eclipse of the Sun'.

Have a lovely (dark) time

Date: 1999
Made In: Penzance

The 1999 solar eclipse drew large numbers of visitors to Cornwall in the southwest tip of England. This is one of many postcard designs produced for people to post to friends and family, or to keep as souvenirs.

Cleaning up after the eclipse

Date: c.1999
Made In: England

This fetching tea towel is one of many commemorative souvenirs that could be purchased in celebration of the 1999 solar eclipse. It shows clearly the passage of totality over Cornwall and the tip of France.

Catching cosmic explosions

Date: c. 2000
Made In: Leicester

The Swift spacecraft responds to gamma-ray bursts – unimaginably large explosions that originate from all points of the cosmos. Scientists are not sure exactly what causes them. Within minutes of a gamma ray burst being detected, Swift can turn towards the source and catch the associated visible and X-ray light that is emitted, before it fades.

Swift is named after the bird because of its ability to turn rapidly.

Mapping the cosmos

Date: c. 2000
Made In: Seattle

The Sloan Digital Sky Survey is the largest astronomical survey ever completed. Between 2000 and 2008 it created a 3D map of over a million stars and galaxies, covering a quarter of the night sky.

This plate is one of about 4000 custom-built to fit the telescope. Each plate carries a unique pattern of 640 holes, used to select hundreds of stars and galaxies for each exposure. The circled guide stars marked on the plate help astronomers align it to the sky.

Planet hunter

Date: 2001–2009
Made In: Belfast

SuperWASP’s twin telescopes are searching for new planets outside of our Solar System. This ordinary-looking camera lens from SuperWASP-North (La Palma) helped the team find their first two planets in 2004. Each telescope has eight cameras that monitor millions of stars simultaneously, looking for telltale signs of planets orbiting other stars.

In June 2009, SuperWASP’s count was up to 25, the most new planets discovered by any single project.

Searching for missing matter

Date: 2001
Made In: Sheffield

DRIFT I was built by UK and US scientists to search for ‘dark matter’. This invisible matter, thought to make up around 23% of the universe, is known to exist because of its gravitational effects on ordinary matter in stars, galaxies and planets.

Scientists think that dark matter is most likely to be previously unknown particles. DRIFT I ran between 2001 and 2004, 1.1 kilometres underground in Yorkshire’s Boulby Mine. It did not detect dark-matter particles, but its powerful successors continue the search.

Detecting violent cosmos

Date: c. 2002
Made In: Armenia

This is a spare mirror segment for one of HESS’s four gamma-ray telescopes. Gamma rays are given off in violent cosmic events, such as a star exploding. When these rays are absorbed by the Earth’s atmosphere they produce flashes of blue light. The telescope’s mirror focuses this light onto a huge camera to be recorded.

The scale model in front of this mirror shows you how 382 segments like this would be arranged on each telescope.

Catching gravity's waves

Date: 2003
Made In: United States

This piece of pure sapphire is a prototype test mass for the British–German GEO-600 experiment. Tiny movements of the experiment’s test masses would indicate the presence of a gravitational wave.

These elusive waves are predicted by Einstein’s general theory of relativity. Caused by violent cosmic events, such as black holes colliding in distant galaxies, they stretch and squeeze space-time.

Ancestral inspiration

Date: 2006
Made In: Cambridge

Artist Ani O’Neill chose the theme of feathered stars and traditional craft techniques to represent the ancient skill of Polynesian sailors:

‘Our Pacific ancestors used the stars to navigate between the islands of the Pacific. Today our people have adapted to dramatic change and flourish in contemporary times, however I feel that we continue to see the stars for what they are – an integral part of our creative process.’

Searching for space-time ripples

Date: 2008
Made In: Chilton

This is a prototype part for Advanced LIGO, one of the most sensitive experiments ever designed. It will split a laser beam down two paths, several kilometres long. Scientists will look for changes in the path lengths that might be caused by a passing gravitational wave.

Gravitational waves are tiny, fleeting warps in the fabric of space-time, predicted by Einstein’s general theory of relativity. They are caused by moving bodies such as colliding stars.

Viewing the violent cosmos

Date: 2009

Namibia’s HESS observatory studies some of the most violent events in the universe, including exploding stars and supermassive black holes. Its four identical telescopes detect high-energy cosmic gamma rays produced by these objects. Gamma rays are the most energetic form of light known.

This model is one-thirtieth life size. Each of the four telescope dishes is actually 12 metres wide – 1½ times the length of this showcase.

The world's biggest telescope?

Date: 2009
Made In: London

The world’s largest optical telescope, the European Extremely Large Telescope, is due to begin operations in 2018. It will consist of 984 hexagonal segments of this size, fitted together to make a mirror 42 metres across – around the length of five London buses.

A telescope this big could examine the oldest stars and galaxies, and search for Earth-like planets that might harbour life.