A Guide to Visualizing the Universe in the Hayden Planetarium

by AMNH on

On Exhibit posts

Visitors seated inside the Hayden Planetarium look up at the projections displayed on the curved overhead screen. The cutting-edge software OpenSpace and powerful instruments like the Zeiss star projector give visitors and scientists in the Hayden Planeterium the best view of the universe possible without having to leave the Museum.
M. Shanley/© AMNH

You’re looking out over a rocky, dusty valley, at a series of jagged peaks on the horizon. If you’ve ever visited a desert landscape, the terrain may seem vaguely familiar. But this scene isn’t on our continent. It isn’t even on our planet.

You’re looking at the latest visualizations of the Mars' surface from the perspective of the Curiosity rover. And the best part: you don’t even have to leave New York City to get this close.

This scene is what visitors saw during a recent program in the Hayden Planetarium’s Astronomy Live series, as Director of Astrovisualization Carter Emmart fed the rover’s data through an open source software platform called OpenSpace, rendering it in three spectacular high-resolution dimensions onto the dome’s 68 foot-diameter convex screen. “OpenSpace hopes to take a sense of discovery that is usually reserved for those in mission control and make it a shared one,” says Emmart.

Best Ways to See the Stars: The Zeiss Star Projector

OpenSpace is just one of the cutting-edge tools that scientists at the Museum are using to visualize space for visitors, students, and other researchers.

Want to spend an hour under the glowing light of the night sky in the Chilean desert? Or see the Milky Way unobscured by light pollution? The Zeiss star projector can make it happen.

Specially designed for the Hayden Planetarium when it was installed in 1999, the Mark IX is the fourth Zeiss projector model and produces hyper-realistic views of the sky from Earth, allowing viewers to trace constellations and track the motion of planets and stars. It was used in 11 Museum programs last year.

Of the various platforms used to visualize space in the dome, “it wins out for the sheer beauty of the stars—they twinkle! Nothing else comes close,” says astrophysicist Jackie Faherty, a senior scientist and senior education manager at the Museum.

Picture-Perfect Space Scenes with the Digital Universe 

Seated visitors view the Digital Universe space show inside the Hayden Planetarium.
Raw data and measurements taken from space-based observatories have been used to create a vast catalog of stunning space scenes the 3D atlas known as the Digital Universe. 
M. Shanley/© AMNH

Want to go farther? How about a tour of the solar system? 

The Museum’s Space Shows and many of the Hayden Planetarium programs offer visitors a roundtrip ticket to explore our galactic neighborhood through the Digital Universe, an atlas of the cosmos developed by the Hayden Planetarium in 1998.

The primary advantage of Uniview—the software that renders the Digital Universe atlas accurately in three dimensions—is that it doesn’t confine viewers to gazing at the stars from the ground. Instead, the interactive nature of the software lets viewers fly beyond our solar system to the edges of space.

Digital Universe uses raw data from images and measurements taken from space-based observatories and Uniview converts it into a colorful, textured, three-dimensional environment where the only limits are the edges of the known universe. And with more than 20 years to compile a curated catalog of rendered scenes, there is a beautiful set of space imagery that’s regularly featured in live programs, including those used in recent Astronomy Live programs.

Visitors seated inside the Hayden Planetarium look up at the projections displayed on the curved overhead screen.
The Digital Universe's atlas of detailed renderings of space is often used in live programs such as the Museum's Astronomy Live series.
M. Shanley/© AMNH

“Our visitors have a real hunger for knowing where they are in the universe,” says Hayden Planetarium Assistant Director Brian Abbott. “With Digital Universe’s visual interpretation of astrophysical data, we can show them.”

Top Way to Time Travel: OpenSpace

Visitors seated inside the Hayden Planetarium look up at the projections displayed on the curved overhead screen.
M. Shanley/© AMNH

And then there’s OpenSpace. Developed by a team that includes the Museum, Sweden’s Linkoping University, Visualization and Data Analysis (ViDA) lab at New York University’s Polytechnic School of Engineering, and the Scientific Computing and Imaging Institute (SCI Institute) at the University of Utah, this next-generation visualization software is supported by NASA and available for anyone to download and use—though it’s hard to beat seeing it on the Hayden Planetarium’s dome.

Using the open source software platform OpenSpace, the Museum's Director of Astrovisualization Carter Emmart has been able to render spectacular views of the surface of the Moon and Mars (pictured here).

Unlike Uniview, the code can be tinkered with to accommodate larger data sets and to create sophisticated maps to explore data through time—such as fast-forwarding one million years to see if other planetary systems will make a close flyby past our own.

Like the other instruments, OpenSpace isn’t just for show—it’s also a powerful research and teaching tool. “Scientists, artists, and educators are all working in the same digital medium, using many of the same software tools, so the line from researchers to the public is much shorter,” says Vivian Trakinski, the Museum’s director of science visualization and project manager on the OpenSpace team.

Last spring, following the release of the European Space Agency’s Gaia observatory’s second catalog, which includes distances to 1.4 billion stars, Faherty worked with Abbott to render the Gaia data in OpenSpace.

In June 2018, Faherty and David Spergel, director of the Center for Computational Astrophysics (CCA), gathered 90 scientists in the Hayden Planetarium dome to fly through the data in three dimensions. “Our little computer screens on our desks are useful, but they don’t do justice to this volume of data,” says Spergel.

Natalie Hinkel, a senior research scientist at the Southwest Research Institute who studies elements in stars nearest our Sun, had never visited the Hayden Planetarium before she answered Faherty’s call to submit data for the June gathering. “It was unlike anything I’ve ever even dreamed of,” says Hinkel of seeing the data visualized in the dome. “Flying through eight years of work I’d done, it was very powerful.”

Most recently, Faherty worked with five students in the Museum’s Master of Arts in Teaching program to use OpenSpace to render and analyze Gaia data. She’s currently working with Helen Fellow Colleen Cleary and six of the Museum’s high school student Brown Scholars to use OpenSpace to visualize brown dwarfs. 

“I’m excited for my students to try it,” says Cleary. “For them to be able to see what they’ve been working with up on the dome adds a different aspect to working with code, and it also teaches them a new skill.”

“Plus, where else do you get to drive around the universe but here?” she says. 

A version of this story appeared in the Spring issue of the Member magazine, Rotunda.

OpenSpace is funded in part by NASA under award No NNX16AB93A. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.