Galactic journey to reach the city's new planetarium, but it's worth it

Andy Boreham
You'll need to travel stellar distances to get to the Shanghai Astronomy Museum – at least in city terms – but the world's largest planetarium is well worth the visit.
Andy Boreham

Some say the universe is infinite, and distances between celestial bodies are so huge that we need to describe them in light years. The nearest star to us, apart from our Sun, is 4.24 light years away – that means you'd have to travel at around 300,000 kilometers per second for more than four years before you'd reach Proxima Centauri in the Alpha Centauri system. 

Relatively shorter distances can be measured in astronomical units (au). The distance from Earth to the Sun is about 1 au, or 150 million kilometers. To put that in perspective, China's Tianwen-1 took seven months and traveled just over 0.33 au to reach Mars, some 56 million kilometers away (at least).

That distance is just a tiny, tiny, tiny fraction of a light year. At the speed of light, Tianwen-1 would have arrived at Mars in just 2.6 minutes.

To be honest, getting to Shanghai's new planetarium felt like a 56-million-kilometer journey.

The world's largest planetarium, the Shanghai Astronomy Museum, is located a stellar 55 kilometers from downtown Shanghai in the city's Lingang area in the Pudong New Area, as the bird flies. At the speed of foot, you'd arrive in just over 14 hours. At the speed of bicycle, expect a journey of five to six hours. The speed of public transport will get you there in just under two hours. Probably the fastest journey is by car, still taking an hour and 20 minutes.

Even people used to dealing in astronomical units and light years were worried about the distance required to reach the city's newly opened planetarium. Ye Shuhua, 94, is China's first female observatory director. She made the galactic journey before the official opening.

"We did worry about whether people would come since it's built so far away from the city," she said. Her fears were allayed when thousands scrambled to buy tickets to the planetarium's soft opening event.

"Even those who know little about astronomy would benefit from a visit," Ye added.

Galactic journey to reach the city's new planetarium, but it's worth it
Wang Rongjiang / SHINE

The Shanghai Astronomy Museum has become a must-see venue in the city.

Sprawled out over an area of some 58,000 square meters, the Shanghai Astronomy Museum is well worth the visit. 

As soon as you walk in, you feel like you've walked onto the set of Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey," with futuristic spiraling walkways, giant, moving planets, and frightening visual representations of twisting time and space. 

There are more than 300 exhibits to wander through, which are mainly split over the three main zones: "Home," "Cosmos" and "Odyssey." 

A giant representation of Earth, which guests can walk around and photograph from any angle, is definitely one of the most photographed parts of the new planetarium, but guests can travel much farther from home as they traverse the universe encountering black holes, meteorites, and even a replica of the small study of "the father of observational astronomy," Galileo Galilei. There he observed the rings of Saturn, the dark spots of our Sun and the four largest moons of Jupiter, which were later called the Galilean Moons in his honor. 

The planetarium is also a great place to study China's space exploration journeys. A replica of Chang'e-5 and rover Yutu on the surface of the Moon are quite impressive, and a life-size replica of Tianhe's core module allows visitors to get a feel for how Chinese astronauts live while orbiting the Earth. 

The gift store also doesn't disappoint, with world-class souvenirs, toys and scientific models to take home, including Lego-like sets that children can put together themselves while learning about China's space exploration. 

Sure, you'll need to travel stellar distances to get there – at least in city terms – but I assure you, you won't regret it! 

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