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Digital Deep Space

Ogling the universe in a brand-new, high-tech planetarium.

With the voice of actor Tom Hanks as your guide, you are whisked away on a spectacular tour of the cosmos. First a mysterious, Death Star-like sphere rises up from the floor before you. Vivid computer-generated star fields and galaxies glide before you at many times the speed of light. Finally, your seat rumbling beneath you, you experience a flume ride through a Disney-esque black hole.

Welcome to the 21st-century incarnation of New York’s Hayden Planetarium. Housed in the Rose Center for Earth and Space, a recently opened wing of the American Museum of Natural History, it is to a 20th-century planetarium as George Lucas is to Galileo. And while the planetarium’s combination of advanced projection systems is now unique, it should soon be replicated in other revamped or new space theaters around the world.

The traditional domed planetarium-using optical projection and gears embodying Copernican astral mechanics-was first demonstrated in 1923 by Zeiss, the German optics company. The original Hayden Planetarium, part of the first wave of sky theaters in the U.S., opened on Manhattan’s Upper West Side in 1935. Over the years, generations of children broadened their horizons beneath its virtual planets and stars-heavenly bodies usually unseen in the city. (Among those turned on to the stars here was Bronx-born astrophysicist Neil de Grasse Tyson, now the Hayden’s director.) About 100 other major planetariums and more than 1,000 smaller ones have cropped up since, many built at schools and colleges with funding generated by the Space Race of the 1950s and 1960s.

In recent years, though, planetariums have had to compete for the public’s attention with theme park rides, Hollywood special effects and high-resolution IMAX movies. The most recent trend in planetarium buildings has been an odd architectural compromise: a tilted dome with steeply banked audience seating to accommodate both IMAX and star shows. When the Hayden’s threadbare facilities were in need of a major refurbishing, the trustees of the Natural History Museum opted for a new architectural metaphor: One of the universe’s own spheres, 2 million kilograms of it, housed inside the showcase-like, $210 million Rose Center. At the heart of the sphere is Hayden II’s 429-seat Space Theater. It is equipped with the latest Zeiss projector-the Universarium Model IX-which includes a more detailed portrayal of our home galaxy, the Milky Way, as well as additional deep-sky objects. In place of the old barbellshaped-projector, this one’s main module is a black globe using fiber optics to produce some star images finer than the unaided eye’s ability to resolve them.

But what makes the new Hayden a technological leap forward is its combination of analog and digital technology. While the analog Zeiss system is hardwired to portray specific celestial bodies, the digital projection system displays images and scientific visualizations created by computer. These systems can work together, for instance superimposing a digitally created comet trail against a Zeiss-projected sky. The Digital Dome System here is powered by a Silicon Graphics Onyx2 Infinite Reality workstation, which feeds output to seven projectors. This technology, originally developed for flight simulators in defense applications, creates in the Hayden three-dimensional tours of outer space. Its visual database of billions of stars was compiled by the American Museum of Natural History,with support from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Among Hayden II’s advances is technology to remove the blurry edges between the projectors’ overlapping image-a distraction in previous systems.

The analog and digital projection systems cost about $4 million each, and the Hayden’s inaugural show-“Passport to the Universe”-makes extensive use of both.”We wanted to see what we could do once we had all the toys,” explains James Sweitzer, the planetarium’s director of special projects. The show also debuts a scientific triumph: the 3-D mapping of the Orion nebula from Hubble telescope data, allowing a spectacular Star Wars-like fly-through of that distant star grouping. What the digital system gains in flexibility and extensibility, however, it loses in definition; while it makes possible the highest-resolution virtual-reality theater open to the public, its stars pale beside the crispness of the Zeiss optically projected images.

There is a downside to this new technology. Where once the Hayden Planetarium’s sky show lasted close to an hour and included informative discussions of constellations and star names, “Passport to the Universe” zips by in a mere 18 minutes. It gives only the briefest glimpse of the constellations. The compressed show enables the planetarium to give twice as many shows per day, compensating for the 200 fewer seats and massive construction costs.An adult ticket price of $19 (including admission to the Natural History museum) puts the outing in the same league as a top ride at Disneyworld (though the lines aren’t as bad). Still, this 21st-century planetarium succeeds at what its predecessors have always done best: exposing visitors to the universe’s grand scale of space and time, and filling us with awe.

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