Astronaut Payette taking Museum of Civilization’s astrolabe on a journey to the stars

June 15, 2009

Astronaut Payette taking Museum of Civilization’s astrolabe on a journey to the stars

Gatineau, Quebec, June 12, 2009 — When astronaut Julie Payette travels to the International Space Station tomorrow, she will take a national history icon from the Canadian Museum of Civilization along for the ride. Mission STS-127 aboard Space Shuttle Endeavour will carry a copy of the brass astrolabe believed to have been lost by Samuel de Champlain almost 400 years ago.
The great cartographer and explorer likely dropped the navigational instrument in 1613, during a portage around the rapids of the Ottawa River near Cobden, Ontario. A farm boy found the astrolabe in 1867, but it ended up in the hands of an American collector who willed it to the New York Historical Society in 1942. The artifact remained there until June 1989, when it was returned to Canada. It became a centerpiece in the Museum of Civilization’s collection.

“The astrolabe is an emblem of Canada and the earliest Europeans presence in the mainland. Its story parallels the country’s story — lost by Samuel de Champlain, rediscovered the year of the Confederation, and returned to Canada when the Museum moved to its current home,” says Dr. Victor Rabinovitch, President and CEO of the Canadian Museum of Civilization Corporation. “Explorers are as important in shaping our country’s future as they were in shaping our past. Champlain used the astrolabe to navigate with the help of the heavens. Now, a very modern Julie Payette is taking it with her on a journey among the stars.”

The astrolabe consists of an outer disk with the circumference marked off in degrees, and a movable pointer at the centre. By aligning the device with the horizon, then aiming the pointer at the sun or pole star, the navigator could measure the angle and calculate the latitude by consulting an astronomical table.

“Every astronaut is allotted a very small amount of room on the space shuttle to bring special items,” says Payette, who is representing the Canadian Space Agency as a mission specialist. “The Museum of Civilization’s astrolabe was a natural choice for me, both because of its symbolic power and its historical significance to Canada.”

The actual astrolabe, measuring 19 x 14.5 x 3.1 cm, is too big to be carried aboard the Space Shuttle. And so, the Museum of Civilization crafted a smaller but otherwise exact replica. Also made of brass, it is a fully functioning, perfectly calibrated reproduction that matches the original in every way but size.

Julie Payette will be one of seven crew members aboard Endeavour when it launches mid-June. Once at the Space Station, the veteran astronaut will control Canadian, American and Japanese robotic arms during the largest and most complex space project in history. Together, the team will install a platform to the outside of the Station’s Kibo laboratory so that science experiments can be performed in