Mark SubbaRao, director of the Space Visualization Lab, demonstrates the tile wall, which is used to preview and test visuals for upcoming exhibits at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago, Ill., on Tuesday, May 7, 2013. | Andrew A. Nelles~Sun-Times Media
♦ Opens May 17
♦ Adler Planetarium, 1300 S Lake Shore Dr.
♦ (312) 922-7827:
Updated: May 20, 2013 7:55PM
As a pulsing nebula races toward the watchful audience, a hand shoots up to touch it. More hands follow suit, straining skywards. For the kids taking in the Adler’s newest show, “Cosmic Wonder,” outer space is just out of reach.
It’s an illusion created by the latest technology: The Crab Nebula or stars in Orion seem to graze heads, when in fact they’re projected on a dome nearly 40 feet above the audience. As the image gets larger, it appears closer and flatter—“or like the objects are dropping on top of you,” says Mark SubbaRao, Adler astronomer and show creator.
Even the planetarium’s president, speaking at an early screening, was initially fooled: “When I first saw the technology, I reached up.” Michelle Larson embraced her gaffe, “I don’t want to lose that sense of wonder.”
The aptly named “Cosmic Wonder,” opening May 17, is the most recent show created by the Adler Planetarium for its revamped (in 2011) Grainger Sky Theater. The 190-degree domed theater contains 20 military-grade projectors, which produce images so sharp, they appear to be 3-D. In the ever-upgrading technology world, it’s still an unprecedented feat of imaging and power two years after installation. And with three shows, plus plans to travel the last space show, “Welcome to the Universe,” the planetarium is charting new territory. It has quietly emerged as a mini-Hollywood of sorts, a global leader in creating space-themed educational entertainment.
“There’s not much competition,” says SubbaRao, who’s been overseeing productions and helping lead theater efforts since before it opened. He points to New York City’s Hayden Planetarium, which owns the same projector, but with less resolution. A few world expos in Asia have unveiled high contrast or full-sphere projections, but at great financial cost.
For Adler, the theater upgrade was a long time coming. The Zeiss Mark VI projector had aged, and the planetarium started a campaign to replace it. But the Zeiss’s opta-mechanical technology, as old-fashioned as it was, created pinpoint-sized stars with great contrast, an important factor when screening space objects against an inky-black background. Finally a 2008 technology show unveiled an ultra-high-contrast digital projector, with five times the number of pixels of a digital cinema display. The Adler took the leap.
But perhaps the biggest overhaul to its programming came when the Adler tore down the traditional space-show model. Instead of using recorded video footage, show creators mostly rely on rendered NASA data — in the case of “Cosmic Wonder,” Hubble Space Telescope’s imagery — to create an accurate, and often mind-blowing, view of space. In one breathtaking instance, the show zooms into the Carina Nebula, showing, at full resolution, part of an image the size of Soldier Field.
Rendering this data is no easy feat, and the Adler’s relationships, like one with Microsoft WorldWide Telescope, bolster production efforts.
For all its technological accomplishments, when “Cosmic Wonder” begins screeningthis weekend, audiences will notice its imperfections. There’s something homespun about it: The contrast still lacks sharpness, SubbaRao and Larson share writing credits, the show presenters occasionally improvise. “We don’t have a feature-film budget,” acknowledges SubbaRao.
But, put aside the glossiness, and you’re not only getting a glimpse of real space, you get an authentic picture of what astronomers really do. This “wonder” might top all.
Madeline Nusser is a local free-lance writer.