Ever wondered how your phone knows its Kensington from its Kennington, its Smithfield from its Spitalfields, and how the modern magic of satellite navigation works to plot you (theoretically) on a postage stamp?
Like a friendly sat nav, the Royal Observatory’s Stars to Satellites display talks you through the journey that particular technology has travelled.
It sets out with angles and altitudes, ships and sextants, and orienteering methods as old as the stars. (And, without a trace of irony, this exhibition about modern global positioning pinpoints on a map the Greenwich Meridian somewhere near Banbury.)
Then straight on, through the modelling and development of the satellite. Intriguingly, they seem to have been first mooted by ballistics anoraks and sci-fi hacks like Everett Hales – a Victorian writer whose proposals of floating balls of brick in the sky could make even HG Wells’ science sound plausible – or Arthur C Clarke, who prophesied geostationary orbiting devices.
Then a left-turn. Just as fascinating as the explanation of how a whole constellation of satellites 12,000 miles high came to communicate with gizmos on the surface (an explanation which is accessible, even if the images are a little poky) is the account of the political flashpoints which shaped that technology. There was a Space Race, and decades of military testing of GPS. Had it not been for the Soviets’ erroneous shooting-down of a Korean passenger flight in the ‘80s, President Reagan might never have extended sat nav to civilian purposes.
Though eye-wateringly pricey, it was available much earlier than you think — and so too the first smartphone (clue: it was the other side of the millennium, by some years). We learn that satellite navigation is a perfect example of a system which has been very quickly consumer-ised, and turned to innovative uses – from farm micro-management to tracking endangered animals.
But it’s also a tool which oughtn’t elbow out the traditional, ‘natural’ methods from which it evolved – or we could all end up lost in space.
Stars to Satellites runs until 31 August at the Royal Observatory, Royal Museums Greenwich, Blackheath Avenue, London, SE10 8XJ. Admission is free