Text by Paul Tumarkin, Tech Launch Arizona
UA Flandrau Science Center Goes 'FullDome'
A state-of-the-art digital projection system has been installed at the UA Flandrau Science Center and Planetarium that will captivate visitors as they tour the Earth, the universe, the human body and virtually any other part of the natural world like never before.
Imagine breathtaking views of Earth from orbit, watching hurricanes churn a hundred miles below, then following the billowing plume of a volcanic eruption as it spreads out across the ocean before you plunge into the glowing veils of the aurora dancing toward you over the horizon.
You don't have to be an astronaut aboard the International Space Station to experience all this – all you need is a ticket to the University of Arizona's Flandrau Science Center and Planetarium, where a state-of-the-art digital projection system called Flandrau FullDome has been installed over the summer.
The FullDome projection system consists of two ultra high resolution digital projectors driven by powerful computers, a software capable of turning near real-time science data into images and a new audio system. The system uses two projectors linked to a powerful computer system that will digitally “stitch” the images together to deliver crisp detailed pictures that cover the whole planetarium dome and surround the audience.
"Our new projection system really transforms the planetarium experience," said Bill Plant, exhibits director at Flandrau Science Center. "Imagine an IMAX theater with a joystick, and you have a sense of what this awe-inspiring new planetarium technology can do."
Uniview, the system's software engine, provides access to a network of satellite imagery, updated daily, that Flandrau personnel can quickly integrate into a show to engage viewers with fascinating events occurring anywhere on the globe, Plant explained.
"For example, if there is a volcanic eruption somewhere, a forest fire or a hurricane, we can take our visitors on a visual journey right into the center of action and explain what's behind those phenomena."
Currently, visitors can immerse themselves into swirling weather patterns, fly over the surface of Mars, swoop through the ice crystals of Saturn’s rings, zoom out from our solar system to see our entire Milky Way galaxy in vivid detail, explore the majestic and colorful remains of a recent supernova, and travel to the edge of the known universe.
Eventually, the FullDome system will be able to turn virtually any scientific topic into a visual experience, from dinosaurs to microbes. For example, viewers will be able to embark on a journey into the human body and even explore the inner workings of cells. Shows about a wide variety of science topics have been produced and Flandrau will be bringing in new FullDome shows in the months ahead.
Flandrau is the first in the U.S. to install the new projection system, which is produced by Swedish company SCISS under the name Colorspace. The imagery dataset, called Digital Universe, was developed by the American Museum of Natural History’s Hayden Planetarium. It incorporates data from dozens of organizations worldwide to create the most complete and accurate 3-D atlas of the universe from the local solar neighborhood out to the edge of the observable Universe.
Flandrau, part of the UA College of Science, will also use the new system as a powerful teaching tool for UA students, allowing for a truly immersive learning experience. Thomas Fleming, an Astronomer and Senior Lecturer at the UA Steward Observatory and Department of Astronomy, already is using the FullDome system to teach astronomy to undergraduates this fall semester.
Since it opened in 1975, the Flandrau Science Center and Planetarium has been using a mechanical star projector, nicknamed "Hector Vector Star Projector," to give visitors a tour of the night skies.
"Hector was the state-of-the-art when he was installed, and he is a beautiful machine, but he can’t compete with today’s high-resolution digital technology," Plant said. "In recent years, both science and technology have advanced by leaps and bounds. We now have incredible images of our own planet Earth as it changes over time, and photos and data maps of other planets and other galaxies. New discoveries are being made every day, and now we can share those with our audiences in stunning ways."
FullDome is set to transform STEM education and outreach in the Tucson area, as the system can play any of the many shows produced for full dome systems on topics ranging from ocean life to neuroscience to the world of M.C. Escher. At the moment, Flandrau is screening the full dome shows "Magic Tree House: Space Mission" based on the popular children's book series, "Back to the Moon for Good" about the Google Lunar XPRIZE, and "IBEX," a documentary about NASA's Interstellar Boundary Explorer spacecraft.
"The experience will reach people of all ages and backgrounds, help them understand the marvels of science, and inspire the next generation of scientists," Plant said.
Flandrau Science Center, part of the UA College of Science, worked closely with the College and UA Bookstores to raise funds for the new system. Purchase and installation of the FullDome system was made possible entirely through the generous support of a number of donors to the UA College of Science.