It may seem like an unlikely way to celebrate Earth Day, but this year, students at the University of Washington (UW) can mark the occasion with an exhilarating virtual trip away from our small blue planet, thanks to a unique collaboration between Microsoft Research Redmond and the UW Planetarium.
By incorporating digital images streamed from Microsoft’s Worldwide Telescope (WWT), a computer program that brings together imagery from the world’s best ground- and space-based telescopes, the UW Planetarium has gone beyond the typical static display of the heavens. WWT provides students with detailed views of the night sky through an incredible 3-D experience.
In the past, the UW Planetarium used a star-ball to project an image of the night sky on the building’s domed ceiling. This is the tried-and-true method of showing the constellations and brighter stars, but it lacks the ability of zooming into details of objects like nebulae and seeing the birth of new stars. Couple that with the excitement of 3-D—a feeling that you’re actually flying through the solar system—and you take student engagement to a whole new level.
The new projection system was a result of a two-year collaboration and cost approximately US$30,000—a bargain compared to equipping a planetarium with standard digital technology, which involves the installation of dedicated digital projection systems and can run half a million dollars or more. This low-cost system—created jointly by the UW Department of Astronomy and Microsoft researchers (especially WWT developer Jonathan Fay)—uses six modified home-theater projectors, each of which projects a portion of the digital image onto the dome. Software enables the perfect alignment of the six images and a resolution of 8 million pixels.
The UW planetarium also allows attendees to see the Terapixel image—the largest and clearest image of the night sky ever produced—in all its glory. Not only is the UW’s digital planetarium a boon to students, it also serves as a model for inexpensive digitization of planetariums around the world. While you’re waiting for digital projection to reach an institution near you, you can fire up your PC and go to the WorldWide Telescope site. There you can zoom among the stars, albeit on a much smaller (and flatter) screen. Or, if you happen to be in Seattle, check out the UW Planetarium shows that are open to the general public and get lost in the stars.