Gates Planetarium, Denver, Colorado
Paper published in the Denver Museum of Nature & Science newsletter, 2003
A recent poll asked planetarium professionals to describe the ultimate
planetarium. Some shared their dream about a place where audiences could
be transported to any time or place in space at will—a fully interactive, push-
Denver audiences will soon be among the first to experience such a place.
What seemed impossible a few years ago is now very close at hand,
Twenty years ago, the Gates Planetarium staff proudly displayed a shiny new
Minolta star machine. This planetarium instrument, prominently mounted in the
center of the domed theater, was a sight to behold. As magnificent as it was, it
could only do one thing: show the night sky from Earth, which it did very
Ten thousand stars, slowly moving planets, and realistic deep-sky objects such
as the Andromeda Galaxy held the imagination and attention of audiences for
a number of years. But as time moved on, the expectations of sophisticated
Denver audiences became much more difficult to satisfy.
Smoke, lasers, speakers, slide projectors, props, and other theatrical effects
were added to increase the experience. Famous narrators, professional
actors, and knowledgeable lecturers were hired, and multichannel video,
computer automation, and manual control of every gizmo in the place were
used. Gates Planetarium featured five different shows a day, making it a
technological and theatrical triumph.
Then in the mid-1990s Museum management began asking the skilled and
exhausted staff what was next. What should Gates Planetarium look like in
After years of focus groups, technical research, travel, and review of available
resources, we still had no clear idea where we were going. Then we rethought
two questions: “What will audiences DEMAND of us in the years to come?”
and “How will we meet this challenge?”
A team of pioneering thinkers was assembled and came up with a road map to
create something revolutionary. Drawing from the best ideas of professionals
in stage, television, sound, film, computer simulation, and, of course, other
planetariums, we created a new map to follow: the Cosmic Atlas.
The Cosmic Atlas is no longer a dream; we built a virtual universe. That dream
of a future star theater is operational today in our own Gates Planetarium.
To display the Cosmic Atlas we have a one-of-a-kind super-high-resolution
digital video and sound system in a tilted dome. A room-size supercomputer
generates sights and sounds in the dome, as well as the technical support and
infrastructure needed to connect and operate the multimillion-dollar system.
But the Cosmic Atlas is far from complete. Realizing that this was a long-term
task and that the knowledge collection about the universe grows exponentially,
the team understands that the remaining work will continue for decades and, in
fact, will never be finished.
There is much more to do, but a lot has been already been accomplished. In
order to re-create a digital version of the sky as seen from Earth, we collected
photos of the Milky Way, locations of 60,000 stars, and built an orrery program
to calculate the positions of planets +/- 3,000 years. We added 88
constellation line figures (that reveal dot by dot), and historical artwork of 88
imagined creatures and objects “living in the sky.” These functions surpass the
capabilities of any optical mechanical planetarium instrument. We have also
added the Messier objects, each positioned accurately and with a zoom
window that can show multiple photographic versions with just a click of the
In response to our audience’s requests, we devised a method to “take them
there.” The entire group of 120 Planetarium visitors can be transported
virtually into space. Each of the planets, previously seen as dots in the sky,
slowly reveals its grandeur as we fly by it in our virtual spaceship. Not just the
planets exist in this virtual universe, but every known moon, comet, asteroid,
and even man-made satellite, orbiting correctly in photo-realistic detail. Every
object has orientation grids available with a click of the keyboard. The system
will even take you into an orbit of any object if you hit a function key.
The premiere presentation Gates Planetarium: A Cosmic Journey was created
with the Cosmic Atlas, but this is only the beginning; comparatively speaking, it
shows only a “speck in the universe.” Still to come:
The star database will be updated to include 600,000 stars, each shown in
three dimensions using the best available information regarding color,
distance, size, brightness, and proper motion.
Pointers and images from the Hubble Space Telescope and other
observatories will be displayed in multiple wavelengths.
Technicians are building a three-dimensional virtual Milky Way with the known
stars and tens of millions of statistically representative stars and dust clouds.
The ability to call up simulations of events occurring over time, such as star
formation or the active center of the Crab Nebula, will be incorporated.
Subprograms within the Cosmic Atlas will model gravitational interaction and
black hole phenomena.
As we build these spectacular virtual places, we will improve on the navigation
tools allowing us to fly smoothly and seamlessly from place to place and return
to the front door of the Museum. This is a cosmic opportunity: the ongoing
collection and visualization of data and its interpretation using the new Gates
Planetarium. As long as new discoveries are being made, there are new ideas
to share, and excited places to explore with our audiences, our work will never
be finished. We are creating the ultimate planetarium, one that is savvy
enough to address our audience’s yearning for personal discovery and a
better understanding of the universe.
The Cosmic Atlas team consists of Matt Brownell, Howard Cook, Andy Cox, Dr.
Laura Danly, Dr. Andrew Hamilton, Nigel Jenkins, Dan Neafus, Jodi Schoemer,
Curt Simmons, Dr. John Bally, Vince Wolfe, Richard Stucky, Dr. Ka Chun Yu,
and a host of volunteers and contributors.