One Giant Leap for Astronomy and Space Outreach

Posted on Jul 25 2011
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The STARMUS Festival, celebrated in Tenerife during the week 20-25 June, 2011, brought a whole new dimension to astronomy and space outreach. The Festival combined first-class talks by eminent speakers, a round-table discussion, in the dome of the Gran Telescopio Canarias (the world's largest telescope) in which Neil Armstrong participated, an astrophotography contest, a star party at 2200 metres above sea level in Tenerife's spectacular Teide NationalPark and a magnificent concert by Tangerine Dream, with a guest appearance by Queen guitarist (and astrophysicist) Brian May.

It was a week of superlatives from the word go. The conference was opened at the luxurious Abama Golf and Spa Resort by 11-year-old Kathryn Gray from Canada, the youngest ever discoverer of a supernova.

There were four days of talks during the conference 'Discover the Cosmos and Change the World'. Speakers included two Nobel laureates (cosmologist George Smoot and biologist Jack Szostak), SETI Director Jill Tarter, musician and astrophysicist Brian May, black hole guru Kip Thorne, biologist and renowned popular science writer Richard Dawkins and discover of the first exoplanets Michel Mayor. STARMUS creator Garik Israelian gave a truly seismic performance with acoustic sounds recorded from real stars. Brian May gave a moving and sobering account of our record as a dominant species and urged that we clean our act up as we venture beyond the earth's atmosphere.

But not only astronomy was covered during the week; equal time was given to space and astronautics. The dazzling line-up of space veterans and younger-generation spacefarers included Apollo astronauts Buzz Aldrin, Jim Lovell, Bill Anders and Charlie Duke, Russian cosmonauts Alexei Leonov (the first man to walk in space), Victor Gorbatko, Yuri Baturin and Sergei Zhukov, and ESA's Claude Nicollier (an astrophysicist and astronaut who flew missions to  the Hubble Space Telescope).

The round-table discussion  ('108 Minutes' - the length of Gagarin's epic flight) took place inside the dome of the 10.4 metre Gran Telescopio Canarias on the neighbouring island of La Palma. The round-table was opened by Francisco Sanchez, Director and founder of the Canary Islands Astrophysics Institute and the driving force behind the construction of the giant telescope,  and was hosted by Nature senior editor Leslie Sage and tackled a number of burning issues related to our present and future roles in space. The speakers included Neil Armstrong, Alexei Leonov, George Smoot, Richard Dawkins, Jack Szostak, Brian May, Jill Tarter and Garik Israelian.

The final day of the STARMUS took place at the imposing MAGMA Arts and Congress Centre. The afternoon saw a moving 'Tribute to Gagarin', opened by Gagarin's colleague and close friend Alexei Leonov, and with tributes from Neil Armstrong, Jim Lovell, Bill Anders, Charlie Duke, Viktor Gorbatko, Yuri Baturin and Claude Nicollier.

During the Festival SETI Director Jill Tarter launched the SETISTARS ( campaign to reopen the Allen Telescope Array, whose mission is to look for signs of intelligent life in the Universe. The array is at present offline through lack of funding. In only 24 hours, however, 20,000 US dolars had poured in for the campaign! The setistars campaign has now reached 40 per cent of its 48-day target of USD 200,000.

The Festival concluded in the evening with a spectacular concert ('Sonic Universe') by the legendary band Tangerine Dream at which there was a guest appearance by Brian May. For the first time ever, real sonic sounds recorded from stars was incorporated into musical pieces. STARMUS went out with a Bang to the beat of 'We will rock you!'