23 February 2021 |
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The future is in the stars

In the Bentley Continental GTC V8, tracking down Ursa Major – the Great Bear. A short day’s long journey through the night.

There it is. The very first star of nightfall. A planet actually. Venus. Lit up by the sun which is now leisurely slipping below the horizon, unhurriedly. Its last remaining rays breaking up a few solitary clouds. One by one they disappear until the darkening sky is wiped clear. And the last lights of the scattered houses and cottages begin to go out, too. We switch on the headlamps of the Continental GTC and glide through the Alpine pasture landscape at a measured pace.

It’s grown dark by now. Dark, but not sombre, because the many twinkling stars appearing, coming out here, there and everywhere to let the stream of the Milky Way emerge, are joined by the shining moon. She washes over the white Conti with gentle white light as it begins its journey across the nocturnal firmament. And here, in the Star Park on the Winkelmoosalm mountain pasture near Reit im Winkel in Bavaria, some 1,200 meters above sea level, this firmament appears to stretch particularly far. Lined by clear-cut silhouettes of the forests and mountains, where the air is purer than pure.

One typically drives a convertible in the light of day, under the bright sun in a warm season – at least in central Europe. England doesn’t conform to this. The British island, from which our travelling companion on this star journey hails, knows no fixed season for driving a convertible. That season is always. And at night as well. Thanks to sophisticated heating and ventilation, it’s a highly pleasurable experience to be enveloped in heat and perfectly shielded from cool or icy winds.

Seen like that, one drives through a starlit night under the sunshine of many thousand suns. As Manuel Philipp, our guide through the world of celestial bodies, points out so concisely: the sun is a star. And every star is a sun. Six thousand of them are present for us to observe at night – 400 billion of them in our galaxy alone. There, our solar system, within which the earth rotates on its own axis while orbiting its central star, is hardly bigger than a piece of confetti, and our planet, a microscopically small speck of dust in comparison. According to current astronomy wisdom, there are two trillion galaxies in existence. Astronomical figures which are hard to grasp.

That’s also why our guided tour of the stars focuses on that which lies near, or at least nearer. We find out that the moon, which is closest to the Earth, is at a distance of 400,000 km from us. That our solar system with all its planets – Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune – is in fact a disc (shedding new light on the outdated concept of the Earth as a disc). That, while we follow along in amazement as models of the sun and galaxy are used to explain these things, and as we follow the laser pointer and appear to be standing in a specific place, we are in fact moving. Or rather, being moved. Constantly. Through the Earth’s rotation, at a speed of 1,200 km/h, and at over 100,000 km/h, too, as the Earth circles the sun.

Which means: nothing ever stands still. Ever. Everything is in motion. Always. We, too, then set off again, on the move, setting out at around midnight to track down the Great Bear in its full expanse. Because at this moment, a portion of it is still hiding behind a hill. It’s one of the few astral constellations that is always visible. One point of orientation in the night sky is the North Star, also called Polaris, which is at the end of Ursa Minor – the Little Bear. It always points north.

We follow the Great Bear for part of the way. We’ll never catch up with it – it will always lie ahead of us. Even though it moves by a mere four minutes each day, from our earthly viewpoint. Time, however, is relative: a fact that becomes somewhat clearer when considering that the light of the Great Bear took 80 years to reach us tonight. This stops us in our tracks and we dim the headlights of the Continental to parking lights, so as not to disturb this light from the stars.

Our growing humility in the face of this seemingly endless shining world above our heads becomes deeper still with Manuel Philipp’s final statement, “This Bentley is made of stardust”. Add incredulity to amazement and humility. It seems an all too far-fetched comparison. And yet, the astronomer and physicist argues that everything on planet Earth – all material – comes mainly from the “belly” of a giant star. According to current knowledge, this giant star exploded in the context of a supernova at some point in the distant past. The stardust it generated was carried into a nearby cloud of gas. It was from this stardust-enriched cosmic cloud that, several hundred million years later, our solar system developed with the sun as its central star and orbited by eight planets. Thus, everything in and around us is pure stardust, matter that was created from the nuclear fusion that occurred inside that giant star. And without whose existence we would not exist – because the ball of rock we now call Earth wouldn’t have emerged from thunder and lightning. On the Earth nearly everything that we’ve brought forth comes from one and the same place. This lends far deeper meaning to the surname of David Bowie’s alter ego, Ziggy Stardust.

So our origins are written in the stars. Just like our present. And even more so, the future. At Bentley, our future will take shape under an electric star. When we return to the Star Park next year for a night-time visit, our companion will be able to glide through the alpine pastures in electric mode. And soon thereafter, as an all-electric vehicle.