“Worlds Beyond Earth” is the first new space show at the American Museum of Natural History in over six years, and if you haven’t been to a planetarium in a while, the experience is kind of like being thrown out of. orbit yourself.
Surrounded by brilliant colors, the viewer glides through space in all directions, without being bound by conventional rules of orientation or point of view. Dizzying spirals show the orbits of Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars. At one point, museum visitors are taken on a journey from the perspective of a comet.
Illustrating the far reaches of our solar system, the show draws on data from seven sets of space missions from NASA, Europe and Japan, including the Apollo 15 mission in 1971, which was the fourth to send astronauts on the moon, and still active like Voyager. Museum members will get a preview of the show, which lasts around 25 minutes and is narrated by actress Lupita Nyong’o, during previews this weekend. It opens to the public on Tuesday. (The museum’s current planetarium exhibit, “Dark Universe,” ends Jan. 16.)
Vivian Trakinski, producer of the show, said the idea for “Worlds Beyond Earth” came from the abundance of data collected from the solar system. While raw information isn’t necessarily new, the show brings together distinct sources in an engaging and accessible way that should appeal to adults and children who are hearing about other planets for the first time (although very young children may be exceeded).
Advances in visualization have made it possible to mosaic photographic data from space to create an immersive simulation of celestial bodies across the solar system and through time. Imagery is not pure photography but a form of visual effects. Trakinski likens the process to creating a climate model.
Story-wise, the film, drawing on the realm of comparative planetology, is constructed as a journey to the far reaches of the system – to Titan, Saturn’s “almost Earth-like” moon, courtesy of the spacecraft. spatial Cassini; around Jupiter – and back. And in these journeys, beyond debris and moons, the film illustrates the fragility of the Earth, which positions itself at the limit of habitability.
“We have all of these processes which are similar, we have magnetic fields, we have volcanoes, we have atmospheres, we have gravity,” said Denton Ebel, the geologist who hosted the show. “And these processes lead to this great diversity of results. Ebel, who runs the museum’s meteor room and is chairman of the museum’s physical sciences division, is the first non-physicist to host a space exhibit there.
“Planetary science, especially for places like the Moon and Mars, is no longer done with telescopes,” Ebel said. “We have rovers that analyze rocks the same way we would in a lab here. So it’s geology.
The presentation shows the frightening fates that could have happened to Earth. Mars is presented as a frozen desert – a “failing Earth”. Venus, scorched by the solar wind, with a surface that could melt lead, is seen as a lesson in global warming taken to extremes.
With a sense of movement and scale that only a visual presentation could convey, “Worlds Beyond Earth” takes an open-ended perspective on the dangers of climate change. Another celestial body might have an “alien sea” that “contains more liquid water than all the oceans on Earth,” as Nyong’o relates. But Earth itself, she later adds, is the one place with the right size, the right location, and the right ingredients – a balance that’s easy to upset.
Director Carter Emmart, an astro-visualization specialist who worked at the NASA Ames Research Center before joining the museum in 1998, said a planetarium show is a natural format “to walk around and really see these places.” in a relaxed environment. It is the fruit of missions, during which astronauts are often occupied with mechanical and safety issues.
But when I saw “Worlds Beyond Earth” in a not quite complete version last week, I was also struck by how it harnessed cutting edge filming techniques. It uses a high frame rate – that is, the number of frames displayed per second, which here is 60 instead of the 24 cutscenes – to create a feeling of fluid movement, and it has a complexity of d almost baffling angles and views. Emmart said he spent a lot of time selecting what he called “flight paths” viewers would be sent on.
He also said it was the first new space show to take advantage of the high dynamic range – essentially the spectrum between the brightest whites and the deepest blacks – of the planetarium’s latest projection system.
This means that the loneliness of Earth – in the midst of a vast sea of darkness – will be fully exposed.
Worlds Beyond Earth
Open January 21 (member previews are January 18-20) at the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History, Central Park West, Manhattan; 212-769-5100, amnh.org.