Never one to do things by half measures, Shanghai has added another world record to its list: city of the world’s largest astronomy museum. Set on the banks of Dishui Lake, apart from being (as you’d expect) very large, and seriously sleek, the Shanghai Astronomy Museum – aka the Shanghai Planetarium – is also part oculus, has a giant space telescope (not yet open to the public) and is home to some very cool exhibits on the cosmos, and our place in it. Here’s what it’s all about.
Your journey through space and time will begin at the Home exhibit, recognisable from the giant dome projecting the story of Earth’s continental shift, with some pretty hair-raising meteor bombardments. Home is all about our solar system. You’ll be contemplating cross sections of genuine asteroids that have come down to our humble planet, learning about hexagonal storms on Saturn, and hitting all sorts of interactive buttons to illustrate the science of our little corner of the universe.
This is also where you’ll find the actual planetarium, probably the main draw of the day. You’ll need to queue, but it shouldn’t take too long before you’re on your back looking up at the stars and straining your Mandarin to get what on Earth (or not) you’re looking at. (There’s no English for this experience yet). FYI, the model of the moon just off to the side of the planetarium dome is to scale with the earth projected over the planetarium next to it.
After this you’ll be hitting the Cosmos section, where things take a bit of a broader scope, branching out into the realms of the wider universe. Everything from the Big Bang to the laws of gravitation – not gravity – and the forming of red dwarfs gets a lesson. It’s pretty heady at points, but the signage does a solid job of giving concise explanations (even managing to sum up particle theory in five sentences).
The coolest part of the Cosmos exhibit is no doubt the chance to walk through the Tianhe module. That’s the core of China’s planned space station, and the astronauts’ living quarters. It’s got packages of space food and views back down to earth for you to gaze at. No zero gravity here though.
Having now travelled across our solar system and to the far reaches of scientific knowledge, you’ll probably be ready for a break. Right after the section on searching for extraterrestrial life you’ll pop out next to the café, ironically way busier than any life-supporting planet we’ve ever found – good luck getting a table.
The final exhibition is Odyssey, a section that charts humanity’s relationship with the heavens. It’s delivered chronologically, illuminating how the world's early civilisations explained the night’s sky in myth, and demonstrating some pretty mind-blowing methods they had for charting the celestial bodies. As the exhibit goes on you’ll come across original works from Newton, Kepler and Galileo, as well as scale model of Herschel’s 1789 Great Forty-Foot telescope, the largest telescope in the world for 50 years.
The Shanghai Planetarium might be gunning for another record: most in-demand place in the world. Still carrying that new-opening buzz (it opened at the end of July), you’ll need to be on your game to snag tag tickets via WeChat (上海天文馆, search shanghai tianwen guan). Once on it, you’ll see the days available, but chances are you’ll have to keep checking back for a while before a slot opens up. Your best bet is to check at 9.30am when the booking for the next available day becomes open. Nicely though the number of tickets has been capped at 5,000 per day, so it’s not too crowded once you’re in.
Tickets are 30RMB and you’ll need to bring the ID you used to buy your ticket. To get down there, take Line 16 to Dishui Lake (that’s the giant manmade body of water way out there near the sea in Pudong). The journey will take about an hour and a half from the city centre, but Shanghai Planetarium is well worth the trip.