The Sky Tonight Update: Jan. 19, Mercury at Greatest Western Elongation

Mercury elongation

This January 19th, the planet Mercury reaches its greatest western elongation of 24.1 degrees from the Sun. This is the best time to view Mercury since it will be at its highest point above the horizon in the morning sky. Look for the planet low in the eastern sky just before sunrise.

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The Sky Tonight Update: Ursids Meteor Shower, Dec. 21-22 peak

The Ursids is a minor meteor shower producing about 5-10 meteors per hour. It is produced by dust grains left behind by comet Tuttle, which was first discovered in 1790. The shower runs annually from December 17-25. It peaks this year on the night of the 21st and morning of the 22nd.

The second quarter moon will block many of the fainter meteors but if you are patient, you might still be able to catch a few of the brighter ones. Best viewing will be just after midnight from a dark location far away from city lights. The Meteors will appear to radiate from the constellation Ursa Minor, but can appear anywhere in the sky.

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The Great Red Spot is Changing Shape

great red spot

Jupiter’s Great Red Spot is a swirling anticyclonic storm that was previously large enough to fit three Earths inside.  However, observations taken by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope has revealed that this is changing, both in shape and size.

So why is Jupiter’s trademark feature beginning to downsize?

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Carl Sagan’s Solar-Powered Spacecraft Gets a Test Flight

solar spacecraft

Carl Sagan once proposed the idea of sailing through the cosmos via a solar-powered spacecraft.  This spaceship would use sunlight radiation to power its flight much like a boat uses the wind for propellant.  On May 20th, the Sagan co-founded Planetary Society will initiate its first test flight for such a solar vehicle:  the LightSail.

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National Astronomy Day – April 25

national astronomy day

This upcoming April 25th will be Astronomy Day.  It is an annual event in the United States that promotes interaction between the general public and the various astronomy based organizations, enthusiasts, groups, and professionals.  Baton Rouge has several events planned to celebrate this day including the participation of the Louisiana Art & Science Museum and the Highland Road Park Observatory.

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Orion Launch Rescheduled

Orion, nasa

Due to technical issues, the launch of NASA’s Orion Spacecraft has been postponed until Friday, December 5.
Join us tomorrow in the planetarium to learn more about Orion, create your own spacecraft, and watch video of Orion’s liftoff and re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere before each planetarium program.
Orion is NASA’s version of a next generation spacecraft that is designed to eventually take astronauts to asteroids, Mars, and beyond!

The Full Dome Saga Pt. 1: From Mechanical to Digital

The Full Dome Saga Part 1: From Mechanical to Digital

Hello Readers, you are about to embark on a journey through the world of planetarium technology and production. Every Friday for the next few weeks we will explore all things digital planetarium. The first part of the Full Dome Saga is a brief background on the  technological evolution from the traditional planetarium to the digital dome of today. In later posts we will compare production techniques and equipment used for Hollywood movies to that used for planetarium production, animation and rendering techniques, live action capture, and more.

When many people think planetarium, they imagine a dark, domed room with a strange machine in the center. They imagine a mystifying experience where a presenter takes them on a tour of the stars and constellations in our sky. In the last ten years, the digital revolution has taken the planetarium on an interesting journey (which is far from over). With advances in digital projection systems, software and computers, planetaria are transforming into immersive theaters. Using anywhere between one and thirty projectors, a bank of synchronized computers, and sophisticated software, planetaria are pushing the boundaries of possibility for both education and entertainment.

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These digital systems allow presenters to move beyond the traditional night sky star talk. In a digital planetarium you can watch a full dome movie, specially produced to cover the entire dome, providing a “you are there” experience unlike any other. Differing from traditional movie theaters, digital planetaria possess realtime astronomy visualization software. A presenter can simulate and navigate through actual astronomical data in real time, almost like a video game.  Full dome content is still largely CGI, with only small amounts of live action. Where are the IMAX type nature films designed for the immersive planetarium theater experience? They’re coming…. (I hope!)

Here at LASM the Irene W. Pennington Planetarium houses a 4k digital projection system made by a company called Sky Skan. Our image on the dome is created by two projectors (one at the front and the other at the back of the dome). There are four computers sending visual information to each projector, and one computer that stores the surround sound (see picture at left). All of the computers are controlled by a main master computer and a software called Digital Sky and SPICE. In order for everything to run seamlessly (no pun intended) all computers must run simultaneously with no lagging.

Why are there so many pieces? Projecting a 4k video at a normal frame rate requires multiple computers to share the job, each one takes a small piece of the video to send to the projector (allowing everything to run quickly and smoothly). Current projector technology makes it difficult and expensive to cover a large 60-foot dome with a high quality image using a single projector, so we use two. Other planetaria use four, six or more to accomplish this task.

What does 4k even mean anyway? And does frame rate matter? Return next week to learn about how projection and video in the planetarium compares to your HD TV…