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Brian May
Brian May, who is the lead guitarist for the rock group Queen as well as a Ph.D. astrophysicist, shows off his New Horizons mission patch during a Q&A with journalists. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

LAUREL, Md. — After you’ve participated in NASA’s New Horizons mission to the edge of the solar system, and written a rock anthem for the mission as well, what is there left to do? For Brian May, the lead guitarist for the rock band Queen who went on to earn a Ph.D. in astrophysics, maybe it’s taking a trip to space.

“I’m probably too old to do that,” the 71-year-old British rocker said at first. “A little too old in the tooth to do that.”

Then, after a moment of reflection, he changed his tune.

“I probably still would like to, yeah,” he said. “I don’t really fancy the idea of going up and having a few seconds and then coming back down again. That doesn’t appeal to me. What appeals to me more is, for instance, the ISS [International Space Station], where you can go up there and you sit there and contemplate the world which you were born on, and watch it turn underneath you.”

He also might fancy a trip around the moon, like the one that Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa plans to take on SpaceX’s Starship in the 2020s.

“How incredible would that be?” he said here at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory during a Q&A with journalists. “I’ve been lucky enough to meet a number of the men who walked on the moon, and they all, I think, have a spiritual quality which is beyond what any of us have understood.”

Hours later, May took the wraps off a song that he wrote to celebrate New Horizons’ flyby past Ultima Thule, an icy object more than 4 billion miles from Earth. May said he wrote the song in response to a request from Alan Stern, the mission’s principal investigator.

May joked that he wasn’t immediately sold on the idea, “because I can’t think of anything that rhymes with ‘Ultima Thule.’ ”

But he quickly embraced the idea of writing a rock song that paid tribute to explorers of the farthest frontiers, including the New Horizons spacecraft. “This has gone way beyond where anyone else has gone before,” May said.

May teased the song in a smattering of sample clips on Instagram over the weeks leading up to New Horizons’ flyby, but tonight’s music video marked the first performance of the entire album. It incorporates a sound bite from the late physicist Stephen Hawking, who once said “the revelations of New Horizons may help us to understand better how our solar system was formed.”

Now that the song has made its debut, it will be made available via iTunes, YouTube and other streaming outlets, May said.

So what about coming up with that rhyme for “Ultima Thule”? May said he still shies away from that challenge.

“Think I would go and make a fool-ee of myself?” he asked.

Other riffs from Brian May:

  • May stressed that he was attending this week’s festivities as a scientist rather than a rock star. “I’m not here as a celebrity,” he said. “I’m here to work, and I love it.” His specialty is creating 3-D images of astronomical objects, including the Rosetta mission’s view of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko and New Horizons’ view of Pluto — and he’s hoping the Ultima Thule flyby will yield a fresh batch of stereoscopic images.
  • 3-D imagery is more than a scientific interest of May’s. “My spirit is kind of anchored in Victorian times,” he said. That’s why he has revived the London Stereoscopic Company, which was famous in the 19th century for its stereoscopic scenes of London. May has created his own 3-D viewing system, known as the Owl viewer, and makes use of the technology in two recently published books: “Queen in 3-D” and “Mission Moon 3-D.”
  • May says he’s happy with the way he was portrayed in “Bohemian Rhapsody,” the film about Queen and its flamboyant lead vocalist, the late Freddie Mercury. May had warm words of praise for the actor who played May’s part, Gwilym Lee — particularly for his ability to mimic May’s voice. “He even fooled my kids,” May said. The way May tells it, his children were sure that his own voice had been dubbed into the movie.
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