Cosmic Opportunities

    By;        Dan Neafus, Operations Manager
                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-
    button universe.

    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,
    astronomically speaking.

    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.