Have you been to the moon, lately?
Or the Sombrero Galaxy? This last, by the way, is 28 million light years distant in the southern suburban sprawl of the bustling constellation of Virgo. The Sombrero looks that way because, well, there’s an elliptical galaxy with a disc galaxy inside it. How they got that way, and which one had the chocolate and which the peanut butter, is a matter for intergalactic conjecture.
Last week, under The Dome of the Science Museum of Virginia more than 50 members of the Giant Screen Cinema Association (yes, such a thing exists, and this makes me a little happier), or GSCA, convened for a day under the five-story dome as a way to better understand the Evans & Sutherland digital projection system.
Jupiter, as seen in the Science Museum's Dome (Sean Dewitt Photography)
It’s of interest to the GSCA’s filmmakers, producers and distributors because at the moment, The Dome in Richmond is the only one of its kind. This intrigued GSCA executive director Tammy Seldon.
The organization decided to visit this summer, and Seldon lists the mechanical wonderments with the enthusiasm I remember from people I know who talk about souping up cars. “It’s the first giant screen dome made specifically for the Evans & Sutherland Digistar 5 digital projection, full-dome, system, which has near-8K resolution and interactive 3D stereoscopic projection.”
And, man, it's street legal.
A key component motivation for this pilgrimage, though, was a conversion from the previous IMAX and a 15/70 film format to digital. The shorthand “15/70” is how those in the biz refer to big 70 mm frames with 15 sprockets for the projector to run the celluloid.
“Film is dying in this medium,” Seldon says. “Seeing what’s next, that’s why we’re here.”
Members of the Association for Science and Technical Centers recently met in Raleigh, North Carolina – here’s a video about what they do, or just forward to 4:38 to see North Carolina extolled by the irrepressible Brian Manlow, “Curator of the Daily Planet & Science Comedian.” I need to brush up on my act and get a better title. See it here.
Seldon explains, “About 40 people from the ASTC conference came up to Richmond on the bus, because of proximity,” and A/V types will go a long distance to sit in the dark and get a full-dome “Oooh! Aaah!” experience. If it was me, I’d do the same.
Sean Dewitt Photography
The Science Museum Dome's control room
I arrive after the lunch break to see the session “Bringing Astronomy Back in a Big and Cool Way.”
Soon after getting situated under The Dome, we're treated to a side-by-side comparison of digital and the 15/70 film with trailers for various presentations of this nature.
“At the dawn of time,” the narrator’s voice intones, “when dinosaurs walked the earth,” and we saw the planet and then the prehistoric jungle, “Monsters ruled the skies.” And one flies through, squawling, and I'm ready for the free popcorn. Next comes Sea Rex, about gigantic underwater creatures of the far past — about as long ago as when the Sombrero's light started its journey here. And there are pandas, who look even more adorable cavorting on the Dome. There's a little lens flare issue in the middle, where the two projection methods join, but, as Kirk Johnson of Evans & Sutherland explains, they don't’ want to stop the demo for that. The point is made: The digital images come across sharper and vivid.
Johnson hearkens back to Paul Knappenberger, the founding director of the Science Museum who worked with Evans & Sutherland to create the universe, at least the giant film spool planetarium version.
Justin Bartel, Immersive Experience Manager, speaking from the flight deck and to us all, says, “We can really move you through space and time, and on the fly.”
Faster than you can say Time And Relative Dimension In Space, Bartel and colleague Prabir Mehta take us “back in time” and reprise an installment of a little program they call "Science After Dark," conducted every third Friday evening (except this November) on astronomical and space exploration topics.
The two cover the New Horizons probe to Pluto, which underwent a demotion from planet to probable Kuiper Belt object. Pluto is only 2,400 kilometers across — that's 1,491-ish miles, or about the distance between Richmond and the Mile-High City, Denver. They also have fun with the new inflatable “room” getting attached to the International Space Station – they at first spoof it as a Bouncy Castle — an oblique dig at the budget constraints of such efforts. It’ll be sent up on the SpaceX Dragon Cargo vessel. SpaceX is another big idea by Elon Musk, founder of Tesla Motors.
“Let’s kick up the graphics,” Bartel says, and the bouncy castle goes away for something that looks like a foil wrapped potato.
After a discussion about light and its various components — and how little of it we actually see — Bartel and Mehta take us into space with suggestions from the audience. And this is where Bartel really opens up this baby. We zoom to Mars and Saturn – and I shout out Alpha Centauri, because it’s the solar system nearest us – 4.3 light years (!) — and it’s the one the Jupiter II crew wanted to reach in the 1960s television series Lost In Space. I couldn’t find a clip for the launch sequence, but here’s the cool third season theme.
But what you may not know is that Alpha Centauri is a two-star system – and likely has a planet companion. Now, those technicians down at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory skunkworks and Elon Musk need to get busy with the “exotic matter” powered warp drive. But as Corey S. Powell of Discover online observes, "The reality is that space exploration is expensive, difficult, and time-consuming. Therein lies both its challenge and its glory." And that Sombrero Galaxy — that Prabir's suggestion — well, we'll have to wait a while before we're able to get closer to it than our imaginations can project from Broad Street.
But in lieu of actually going there, we can visit The Dome, where such far-flung individual locales — some 590 of them and regularly updated — are at Bartel's fingertips, and ready to fill your eyes with the stars.
To whet your appetite, here's some video I shot — there are more stars visible than what my camera can pick up, and the view is more impressive as you gaze up from your seat.