A breathtaking experience, the UAA Planetarium is back with “Exploding Universe”

The UAA Planetarium and Viewing Theater seats 62 people. Photo by Matthew Schmitz

Giving viewers a front-row seat to some of the most dramatic and violent events in natural history, “Exploding Universe,” produced by Clark Planetarium Productions, uses 3D animation to simulate explosions across the universe. , large and small.

Presented May 13 by UAA’s Planetarium and Visualization Theater, the film took advantage of the planetarium’s 10-meter-wide dome to immerse audiences in a three-dimensional world without the need for VR glasses.

The film began with the mother of all explosions – and the ancestor of the universe – the big bang. Following a proton that formed in that initial explosion, the subatomic particle traveled through space and time and helped demonstrate exactly what was happening on the smallest scale when objects of such proportions cosmic planets, like galaxies and black holes, crashed together.

Explosions of local interest were also on display, and the film showed how destructive events played a role in the formation of the Earth and the Moon, and how asteroids and supervolcanoes helped shape the world today. today.

Planetarium and Visualization Theater director Omega Smith gave a live presentation after the film demonstrating how the big bang continues to influence the current universe. His presentation also highlighted some examples of nebulae, which are the result of stellar explosions. After her presentation, she answered questions from the audience.

For Smith, it was his first live show in two years. The planetarium had to close in March 2020 when the pandemic started. Only recently have they started showing films again.

Inside the round structure is the UAA Planetarium and Viewing Theater, located on the second floor of the ConocoPhillips Integrated Science Building. Photo by Matthew Schmitz

One of the most remarkable aspects of watching the film in the planetarium was the feeling of being in virtual reality. Before it started, Smith warned of motion sickness and recommended watching the ground if it became a problem. With a dome-shaped screen that wraps behind you and extends all the way to the ceiling, there were times when the walls seemed to disappear.

In one scene, two black holes were spinning around each other, and the jet of matter ejected upwards between them looked like a real tower extending vertically through space.

An interesting idea explored by “Exploding Universe” is what will happen when our galaxy, the Milky Way, crashes into our nearest neighbor, the Andromeda galaxy. Moving towards each other at 68 miles/second, the gases in the leading edge of the spiral arms will experience extreme compression upon contact. This will result in a huge amount of new star formation.

In the Q&A, someone asked what this event would look like for us on earth and how our solar system might be affected. Smith said our night sky would change; the Andromeda Galaxy will cross the Milky Way and form an “X” in the sky. The formation of new stars would also light up the night sky.

Due to the vast amount of space between the stars, our solar system is unlikely to be affected, although the supermassive black holes at the center of each galaxy will eventually collide.

The crash is several billion years in the future, so it’s not something that will affect us anytime soon.

While the film was full of impressive visuals, it often glossed over the scientific understanding of the phenomenon depicted. For someone unfamiliar with science, the lack of information might leave someone wanting more explanation.

The tagline for “Exploding Universe” reads, “from destruction comes the next creation”. As he suggests, a major theme in the film is how explosive events shape the universe. For example, the earth and the moon were formed from a massive collision between two large planetary bodies at the start of the solar system.

Many of the heaviest elements in the universe formed in the cores of stars and during their violent explosions when they collapsed in on themselves. These spectacular explosions also sowed the new elements in all the galaxies.

Smith’s presentation covered how the big bang helped form the structure of the universe. Using the planetarium, she reviewed the scientific history behind the cosmic microwave background, or CMB. Discovered by two scientists using a horn antenna, the CMB is the light that still shines from the big bang.

Because of its distance and age – concepts that are almost synonymous when it comes to the cosmological scale – this “light” has been moved into the microwave end of the electromagnetic spectrum, so that it is not visible to the naked eye.

Despite its age, it still affects the world around us. Smith pointed to the static on old TVs as a concrete example of where we can see that ancient big bang light influencing us today.

According to Smith, televisions are sensitive to microwave radiation and about 1% of the static electricity on the screen comes from CMB.

When mapped, the CMB reveals minute variations in the temperature of the early universe. It is from these tiny differences that the various objects in the universe have been formed – planets, stars, black holes, nebulae. In addition to this, the overall structure of the existing universe can be seen.

The cosmic background of microwaves; color differences indicate minute temperature variations of the early universe. Image courtesy of the European Space Agency

Using the planetarium simulator, Smith whisked us out of our home galaxy and into the far reaches of the universe, allowing us to see branch-like patterns formed by galaxies and intergalactic gases. She also ran a time-lapse simulation created by a supercomputer called Illustris to show how the current structure can be traced from the CMB.

For future shows, Smith said they are still working on the June and July schedule. For those interested in upcoming events, she said the best place to watch is on the planetarium’s Facebook page.

In the immediate future, a show is planned for May 20 called “Birth of Planet Earth”. There are two viewings available: 6:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. The event is a one-hour film detailing the origins of our planet followed by a presentation by UAA biologist Dr. Brandon Briggs.

Tickets are $5 for students and $10 for the general public. Additionally, students can become members of the planetarium for $15 and receive a free ticket to each show.

Arline J. Mercier