Imperial hosts a live celebration of a symphony inspired by the moons of our solar system | Imperial News

Imperial College London recently hosted Planetary Radio’s live celebration of a symphony inspired by the moons of our solar system.

Planetary Radio host Mat Kaplan was joined by an array of panelists in the first episode of The Planetary Society podcast recorded in front of a live audience since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, which took place in Imperial College London. In this weekly podcast, Mat is joined by guests ranging from scientists and engineers to astronauts and defenders, offering unique perspectives on space exploration.

A bustling crowd lined a conference room at the Imperial for the event to honor The Moons Symphony – a seven-movement orchestral work inspired by seven of our solar system’s most awe-inspiring moons.

The evening got off to an exciting start, with Planetary Society CEO Bill Nye welcoming the audience with a special video message.

A group of panelists seated in front of an audience
Mat Kaplan, Amanda Lee Falkenberg, Dr Linda Spilker, Dr Ashley Davies, Professor Mark Sephton (left to right)

Translating celestial bodies into music

Watching the London Symphony Orchestra put the music together felt like a research project: all the attention to detail coming together for a wonderful whole at the end of the day. Professor Mark Sephton Department of Earth Science and Engineering

Mat Kaplan wasted no time introducing Amanda Lee Falkenberg, composer of the symphony who had taken about five years to prepare. Together they discussed the history of the project and how it approached translating these celestial bodies into music.

Amanda has worked extensively alongside researchers, NASA planetary scientists and astronaut Nicole Stott to research the stories of each moon. From this understanding of their conditions, history and discovery, the composer was able to dramatize each moon in a different movement. She said, “We don’t necessarily have to leave the planet to have our Earthrise – we can experience it here as Earthlings through the power of music.”

Acting as lunar tour guides, the panel led the audience through the moons that inspired the movements of the symphony – from the geyser-like jets of Enceladus to the volcanic chaos of Io.

The crossroads of science and the arts

The Moons Symphony had recently been recorded, with Marin Alsop conducting the London Symphony Orchestra in their 18e century church house, LSO St Luke’s. A new recording of the libretto, performed by the London Voices Choir, is set to take place later this month at the famed Abbey Road Studios.

Much of the roundtable also focused on the intersection of science and the arts, with Bill Nye quoting Albert Einstein in his keynote – “The greatest scientists are always artists too”.

Imperial’s Prof Mark Sephton, a member of the Europa Clipper Science team, had attended the recording a few days earlier. Reflecting on the evening, he remarked that: “Watching the London Symphony Orchestra put the music together, it felt like a research project: all the attention to detail coming together for a wonderful whole at the end of the day.

A group of panelists seated in front of an audience

The missions that inspired the music

Another of the speakers was Dr. Linda Spilker, a NASA planetary scientist who worked on the Cassini Saturn and Voyager missions. Dr. Spilker shared the excitement of discovery throughout his career and the resounding successes of Voyager missions that far exceeded their life expectancies.

Panelists also discussed anticipation for NASA’s Dragonfly mission to Titan, whose helicopter lander will search Saturn’s icy moon for the building blocks of life when it arrives in 2034.

Dr. Ashley Davies, a senior scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology, recalled his excitement upon seeing the first images of volcanic activity on Io in 1979, inspiring him to pursue a career in volcanology.

distant worlds

Discussions of the missions that gave insight into these distant worlds were intercut with snippets of some of the moves.

The seventh movement – based on our own Moon – was particularly important to Amanda. Inspired by the iconic Earthrise photo of our planet taken by astronaut William Anders in 1968, it wanted to evoke the sensation of looking at Earth from the Moon.

The event ended with the panelists all highlighting the powerful results of collaborations between science and the arts, before the podcast ended with a lively Q&A. With plans for future collaboration between Imperial and the composer, the event was one of the first steps on an exciting journey of discovery.

Arline J. Mercier