Thursday, September 11, 2008

Gates Planetarium!

Tuesday night I was invited to attend an exclusive, private “behind the scenes” tour of the Gates Planetarium located at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science.
The chance to combine two of my favorite interests – space, and finding out how things work – was too good to pass up. It was the most exciting and fascinating experience.
I had not been to the Planetarium since the days of the old “star-maker” machine in the middle of the domed room. Things have come a long way since then. The Planetarium has undergone a couple of major changes, including a total rebuild. Now, instead of the big machine in the middle, they use several projectors that are synchronized together to create a seamless image. The technology necessary to accomplish this is simply mind-blowing. Just the screen itself is a marvel of engineering, for example – it is not solid, but a unique type of ‘mesh’, and instead of white, it is a fairly dark gray. This is because the projectors are so bright that the light would bounce off the dome screen and around the room. The entire area behind the screen had to be painted black and certain areas sound proofed, because it began to reflect and show through.
The opportunity learn about the unique problem-solving that had to be done, and the copious amounts of ‘figuring things out’ that had never been done before… I learned that because technology advances so quickly, each of these types of planetariums is a ‘one-off’ and no two are exactly the same. Plus, each one has its own unique and exceptional circumstances and anomalies.
Thanks to consumer electronics and the gaming industry, the hardware has advanced by leaps and bounds. The really good news for science lovers is that, like the consumer electronics, the cost has dropped while the performance has improved. The old system used to be housed in a giant mainframe, while the new system is a set of eight very high-end PCs, all linked together. This means that as time goes by, resources can be gathered to continually update the Planetarium, without having to ask for more money. And the best thing is, rather than spending all the money on hardware, the resources available can be put into the scientific and conceptual thinking, storytelling, and the extraordinary programming that goes into putting together their unique shows.
The guides were terrific. They are the core of the team that builds and coordinates the shows. The amount of knowledge between the two of them is astounding, and they were very supportive and willing to answer the numerous questions our small group threw at them.
I was fascinated by a particular old piece setting off to the side in the back. It turned out to be an ancient, home-made star maker from the early days of the planetarium, about 1954. SWEET! We came to find out that the numerous small school planetariums across the country were a direct result of the US government’s reaction to the Soviet’s Sputnik project. Thank you, Sputnik!
One of the points they made is that, in the old planetarium scenario, there was a big “Wow” moment when the lights went down and the stars came out. They wanted to transform that experience so that the “wow” moment continued on throughout the whole show. And believe me, they succeeded! In fact, we stayed afterward for a long time asking questions, having them give demonstrations, flying out to the end of the known universe, and discussing the many fascinating things that came up as we talked.
We watched a demonstration of the sun’s path along the sky over the course of the year. Suddenly, so many things became crystal clear about the seasons, the length of the days, and even the point of view of the ancients as they watched the sun in its annual journey.
At the end, they even let me get behind the wheel (okay the mouse) and take the planetarium for a spin. After they showed me a few basic maneuvers, I flew us around the galaxy, from the earth, to the moon and Neptune, and came to rest on Saturn’s rings. How AWESOME!
Finally, we reluctantly left, thanking our guides for their generosity, time and patience. It was an experience I’ll never forget.

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