Above: Dr. Chris Crowe of the University of Cambridge, one of the astronomers who has participated in the Royal Astronomical Society speaker program aboard Queen Mary 2
Passengers traveling on Cunard Line's Queen Mary 2 have the option of taking a virtual journey to the stars in addition to their physical journey across the water. The ship has the only planetarium at sea. Allied with this feature is a relationship with the Royal Astronomical Society through which guests can learn from and interact with noted astronomers who actually practice in this field. The planetarium is located in QM2's art deco inspired Illuminations theater. Suspended over the central section of the theater is a large dome, which can be lowered down over an area that encompasses approximately 150 seats. These seats are built so that guests can lean back and look comfortably upwards. Computerized projectors located around the theater combine to project an image of the night sky or of outer space onto the dome. Because the dome is curved, the views projected appear to be three dimensional.
Cunard worked with New York's American Museum of Natural history Hayden Planetarium to develop four short programs for QM2's planetarium. Narrated by the likes of Tom Hanks and Harrison Ford, these programs give a perspective on Earth's place in the universe and take passengers through the cosmos on a search for life. Because seating is limited, admission is by ticket only. However, the tickets, which are distributed the morning of the day that the program is to be shown, are free. Inasmuch as QM2 has an international clientele, there are versions of these programs in several languages including Spanish and German.
Complementing the Planetarium showings are enrichment programs given by members of the Royal Astronomical Society. “The Royal Astronomical Society has been around for hundreds of years,” explained Dr. Chris Crowe who has appeared as an RAS speaker aboard QM2. The organization's membership includes “all the astronomers in the U.K. from things like universities and observatories. Even amateur astronomers who have developed the field will be allowed a fellowship in the RAS. It is a community of astronomers that helps facilitate people talking to each other.”
Cunard has developed an ongoing relationship with the RAS through which distinguished astronomers appear on many, but not all, QM2 voyages. Dr. Crowe, for example, works at the Institute of Astronomy at the University of Cambridge. “I look at the very early universe - - what we can see if we look past the stars and all the galaxies to something called the microwave background, the first time that light was ever released in the universe.”
The RAS program is multifaceted. First, there is a series of traditional-style enrichment lectures given in Illuminations. For these, the entire theater, not just the planetarium section, is utilized. Although Illuminations has a seating capacity of 500, it is often difficult to find a seat for the astronomer's talks.
“[Astronomy] is one of those things that people always have an interest in the back of their minds in. Everybody has looked up at the stars and wondered. We are at a point where we have enough satellites and telescopes to take more detailed pictures than ever before. That induces people to think about it. 20 years ago it was more of a boffin subject - - guys in white coast behind closer doors making measurements. Now it is kind of a public subject.”
The lectures are designed for a general audience rather than for scientists. “There are lots of pictures and videos. There is no math and no equations because people get switched off pretty quickly when you start to put in Einstein's equations on relativity.”
“They all seem really interested - - every age from university students to old age pensioners. It seems like there is quite a broad spectrum of interest. There are a lot of intelligent people in the audience. I get a lot of people coming up to me afterwards saying 'I'm interested in this theory.' I go into more detail but not in the lectures.”
Each astronomer normally gives three lectures over the course of a seven day voyage. The topics vary depending upon which astronomer is aboard. “Whenever I give talks it is quite difficult to decide which part to talk about because astrophysics is everything that is not the earth.”
In his first lecture, Dr. Crowe, “tried to capture people's imaginations so that they would come to the next two.” His topic was “our place in the universe - - it was kind of a stage setting for the following two talks.”
“The second talk I gave was on wonders of the solar system. A bit closer to home. What do we know about the inner rocky planets, the gas giants, some of NASA's satellites that have even landed on moons of other planets.”
“The third one is called 'Extreme Astrophysics' - - exploding stars and black holes. These are the most energetic phenomena that we see in the universe. Why is [a certain] star orange? That is because it is coming toward the end of its life and will eventually blow up in a supernova explosion. Why does this happen? What are black holes and if you went through a black hole what would it look like? A few nice video simulations of flying through a black hole and popping out the other side.”
To supplement his lectures, Dr. Crowe created a website, which guests could access both during the voyage and after. “It is like a blog website where everyday I post the constellations that you can see in the sky over the ship. Also, I tie into the stories that I have mentioned in the stargazing and in the lectures. I mention them briefly and then I go into more detail on the website. I have written it every day as I look at the stars and think about what would be interesting and about what people talking to me at the end of the lectures [have indicated they] are interested in. It is qm2stargazing.wordpress.com.”
The RAS speakers also conduct “stargazing sessions.” These are held outdoors at night on QM2's top deck. In order to make these sessions a more personal experience for the guests, participation is limited to about 25 persons a session. As with the Planetarium programs, admission is by ticket but once again there is no charge for the tickets.
Once everyone has assembled, the ship's lights are dimmed. “You can see hundreds of times more stars with the lights off. The lights pop off and wow, the stars pop out. It really is a huge difference. People say wow. This is probably more stars than they have ever seen before. It is nice to get that wow moment.”
The sessions typically begin with a short presentation. However, the sessions are “more about going around and talking to people.”
“I point out the brightest stars in the sky [and explain their use in] navigation. Then also a bit about the history of the stars. Some of the stars are orange and some are blue. [The color] depends upon where they are in their life cycle. Then a bit about the history of the zodiac constellations. Who is a Leo born in May? These are the stars and this is the history of the Leo in Greek mythology. And then some information about the classical constellations like Ursa Major, the Bear, and some of the things that you just see with a pair of binoculars.”
Cunard supplies binoculars and a telescope for the stargazing sessions. “If you have a good pair of binoculars, you can even pick out galaxies from the top deck that you can't see with the naked eye. Because we are so far from artifical light and light pollution, with a good pair of binoculars, you can even see the Andromada galaxy and even some of the galaxies in Hercules. It is probably the first time many people have seen this because if they live anywhere with any sort of light pollution, there is no chance of seeing it.”
“You can see the rings on Saturn with the onboard telescope. When you see it on a computer screen it is one thing but when on a mirror and a piece of glass you see the same thing it is quite mind blowing the first time you see it.”
Of course, whether you can see the stars from the open deck depends upon the weather. Consequently, the stargazing sessions cannot take place when it is cloudy or when there is a storm.
Because the stargazing sessions are weather dependent and because not everyone can attend these nighttime sessions, one afternoon, Dr. Crowe gave a live presentation using the Planetarium's dome. “We look to the same things that we do at the stargazing parties - - navigation, using the North Star, the history of some of the brightest stars, the zodiac constellations, some of the historical constellations and how they are formed. Some of the funny stories behind the constellations, the Chinese stories and the myths that go behind them. It is just a nice alternative for some people to see.”
During the Planetarium session, a three dimensional computer model of the Milky Way galaxy is projected onto the dome. “ It is an interactive software on a laptop. You can click it and show individual constellations, you can fire up a constellation, circle a couple of stars and talk about that. Then, bring them down and rotate the dome around to a few hours before sunrise and say if anyone gets up at five o'clock in the morning, this is what you would see.”
The date of the presentation and the location of the ship are entered into the software “so the sky that we see is what you would see at 10 o'clock at night or five in the morning. The constellations are exactly where they would be. There is a picture of the ship's top deck at the bottom of the dome so it is like looking from the top of Deck 12 and seeing the constellations as they would be tonight.”
The astronomy program on Queen Mary 2 is not atypical of the ship's enrichment program. QM2 often offers enrichment and entertainment programming that is not ordinary cruise ship fare. Such programming appeals to the sophisticated travelers that frequent Cunard's flagship as well as to people who are looking for something beyond the norm in sea travel.
Cruise ship feature article - - Cunard Line - - Queen Mary 2 - - Astronomy Program