Planetarium offers more than just stars

September 12, 2008 12:00:00 AM PDT
The California Academy of Sciences had created a brand new planetarium with an enormous projection screen. The result is breathtaking views of the skies.

"The whole idea of a planetarium is changing," Morrison Planetarium director Ryan Wyatt said. "The traditional idea of a planetarium, which was a wonderful experience to take a look at the night sky, has evolved a little bit to become a much different kind of environment."

One of the flights is over a series on canyons on Mars that stretch as far as from San Francisco to New York.

The new planetarium's seating is different too ? more like a very steep movie theater with a dome.

Video projectors will blend six digital images to make one giant image that covers the 75-foot diameter screen.

"I like to think of the planetarium dome as the biggest computer monitor in the academy," Wyatt said. "And that we way can plug whatever we want into it and create all kinds of experiences for people who come to visit the academy."

The images are being created by dozens of experts, using everything from movie industry special effects to advanced techniques developed by the makers of video games.

Crews installed fiber optic cables to get the fastest possible Internet connection to scientists around the world.

"One of the goals here is to use real science data in everything we present to audiences, so we don't want to just create artwork, instead we want to give people an experience that uses the same data that scientists use to do their research," Wyatt said.

One program is based on data from NASA's Cassini spacecraft orbiting Saturn. Another image highlights the location of extra-solar planets ? planets outside out solar system, orbiting other stars.

"All of that technology has kind of combined to create a unique opportunity today where we have the video game technology that creates beautiful graphics, but we also have the scientific data that allows us to have a better understanding of where we are in the cosmos," Wyatt said.

The planetarium, like the rest of the Academy, has been designed for change. The idea is that this building and all the programs inside will keep evolving with new scientific discoveries; and the people who come here will leave caring about the future.

"I think if the next generation is curious, and convinces their parents to pay attention to what they've done to the planet so we don't repeat the same mistakes, the future will be better for them and for their children, and that's the purpose of our museum," senior scientist John McCosker said.

Written and produced by Jennifer Olney


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