Worlds Beyond Earth is the first new space show at the American Museum of Natural History in more than six years, and if you havent been to a planetarium in a while, the experience is a bit like being thrown out of your own orbit.
Surrounded by brilliant colors, the viewer glides through space in all directions, unbound by conventional rules of orientation or vantage point. Dizzying spirals show the orbits of Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars. At one point, museumgoers are taken along a journey from the perspective of a comet.
In 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 deliver astronauts to the moon, and still-active ones like Voyager. Museum members will get an early look at the show, which runs about 25 minutes and is narrated by the actress Lupita Nyongo, during previews this weekend. It opens to the public on Tuesday. (The museums current planetarium show, Dark Universe, ends its run on Jan. 16.)
Vivian Trakinski, a producer on the show, said that the idea for Worlds Beyond Earth came from the abundance of data collected on the solar system. If the raw information is not necessarily new, the show brings together separate sources in an engaging, accessible way that should appeal to adults and to children hearing about other planets for the first time (although very young children might be overwhelmed).
Advances in visualization have allowed photographic data from space to be mosaicked to create an immersive simulation of celestial bodies across the solar system and across time. The imagery is not pure photography but a form of visual effects. Trakinski likens the process to making a climate model.
Story-wise, the movie, drawing on the field of comparative planetology, is constructed as a voyage to the far reaches of the system to Titan, Saturns almost Earth-like moon, courtesy of the Cassini spacecraft; to the environs of Jupiter and back. And in those travels, past debris and moonlets, the movie illustrates the fragility of Earth, which is positioned on a razors edge of habitability.
We have all these processes that are similar, we have magnetic fields, we have volcanoes, we have atmospheres, we have gravity, said Denton Ebel, the geologist who curated the show. And these processes lead to this huge diversity of outcomes. Ebel, who runs the Hall of Meteorites at the museum and is the chairman of the museums division of physical sciences, is the first non-physicist to curate a space show there.
Planetary science, particularly for places like the moon and Mars, is no longer done with telescopes, Ebel said. We have rovers that are analyzing rocks the same way wed do it in a laboratory here. So its geology.
The presentation shows the frightening fortunes that might have befallen Earth. Mars is held up as a frozen desert a failed Earth. Venus, scorched by solar wind, with a surface that could melt lead, is seen as an object lesson in global warming taken to the extreme.
With a sense of movement and scale that only a visual presentation could convey, Worlds Beyond Earth makes an unforced point about 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 Nyongo narrates. But Earth itself, she adds later, is the only place with the right size, the right location and the right ingredients an easy balance to upset.
The director, Carter Emmart, a specialist in astro-visualization who worked at NASA Ames Research Center before joining the museum in 1998, said that a planetarium show is a natural format to browse and really see these places in a relaxed environment. This is the fruit of the 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 moviemaking techniques. It uses a high frame rate that is, the number of images shown per second, which here is 60 instead of the cinematic 24 to create a smooth sense of motion, and it has an almost bewildering complexity of angles and viewpoints. Emmart said that much time was spent selecting what he called the flight paths that viewers will be sent on.
He also said that it is 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 planetariums latest projection system.
That means that the loneliness of Earth amid a vast sea of darkness will be on full display.
Worlds Beyond Earth
Opens Jan. 21 (member previews are Jan. 18-20) at the American Museum of Natural Historys Hayden Planetarium, Central Park West, Manhattan; 212-769-5100, amnh.org.
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