Stephanie Stone (415) 379-5121
sstone@calacademy.org

Andrew Ng (415) 379-5123

 

NEW MORRISON PLANETARIUM DOME RISING IN SAN FRANCISCO'S GOLDEN GATE PARK

One of the World's Largest Planetariums will open as part of the new California Academy of Sciences in late 2008

 

SAN FRANCISCO (October 9, 2007) - In 1952, when Germany's Zeiss star projectors were unavailable in the wake of World War II, San Francisco's Morrison Planetarium made history by opening as the first planetarium in the United States to operate a homemade star projector - a machine designed and built by staff at the California Academy of Sciences. In 2008, the Morrison will make history once again when its new dome opens as part of the new California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park. Housed in a 90-foot diameter dome, the new Morrison Planetarium will once again employ the latest technologies to create unprecedented immersive experiences for its visitors. The 75-foot diameter screen will match the Griffith observatory in Los Angeles as the largest planetarium screen in North America. Inside the dome, new digital projector and software technologies, driven in part by advances in the video game industry, will allow the planetarium to produce the most accurate and interactive digital universe ever created, giving visitors the opportunity to choose whether they would like to visit Mars, explore extra-solar planets, or embark on other spacey adventures. The 300-seat dome will also be used to broadcast live NASA feeds related to current missions, connect visitors to Academy research expeditions around the world, and host other special events.

"Our efforts will redefine how science visualization integrates into planetarium programming," says Ryan Wyatt, the Director of Morrison Planetarium and Science Visualization at the Academy. "Today's technology allows us to convey scientific concepts with unprecedented fidelity, using actual research data as the foundation of our storytelling."

State-of-the-art digital technology for the dome will be provided by Global Immersion, Sky-Skan, and SCISS. By partnering with three leaders in the field, the new Morrison will benefit from the combined strengths and experience of companies that have helped create a revolution in planetarium design. "Technology plays a central role in modern planetariums, with relationships that last long past the delivery date of computers and projectors," says Wyatt. "We look forward to working closely with the talented people in the companies we have selected."

Construction began on the new planetarium in September of 2005, when contractors broke ground on the new California Academy of Sciences building site in Golden Gate Park. Unlike most planetarium domes, the new Morrison dome is tilted at a 30-degree angle, allowing visitors to feel that they are not just looking up at space but are sitting amidst the stars. Mimicking the tilt of planet Earth, this dome is cantilevered out over the museum's 212,000-gallon Coral Reef tank. The tilted frame for the dome, composed of 100% recycled steel, was erected over the summer of 2006. This frame provides attachment points for the plaster and fiberglass panels that form the exterior surface of the dome. A NanoSeam projection screen - an innovative new technology from Spitz, Inc. designed to appear entirely seamless - will soon be installed inside the steel frame.

Although the screen is constructed of separate aluminum panels, the seams between the panels are designed to disappear with proper lighting. Tiny perforations across the screen enable audio speakers, ventilation ducts, and other equipment to be located above and around the outside of the screen, leaving the interior uncluttered. Properly lit, the dome will seem infinite to the entering visitor, creating a uniquely immersive experience and a true-to-life re-creation of a remote, luminous, and pristine sky.

A wide variety of programming will be offered inside the new Morrison Planetarium, including traditional star shows, school group shows, immersive digital video productions, live video feeds, and musical events. School group and family star shows will be designed to meet the California school standards and will be facilitated by an Academy educator. These shows will focus on the sun, moon, and solar system - the primary focus of the 3rd and 5th grade space sciences curriculum. Additional star shows geared toward adults and youths over the age of 10 will allow visitors to take a live tour of the Universe and discuss breaking astronomical news with an Academy facilitator. The new dome will also be used to display immersive digital video productions that address not only space sciences, but also earth systems and biological systems. With immersive video technology, the dome will be filled with computer-generated visuals that depict current astronomical and other scientific discoveries with unprecedented accuracy. Audience members will view a show that fills almost half their field of view and moves at a rate of 30 images per second, which visually approximates an alternate reality, correspond-ing not to an experience under a dome, but an experience inside an environment. "At its best, immersive video allows audiences to experience a virtual environment in an exceedingly visceral way," says Wyatt. "An 'immersed' audience member becomes part of the action - and part of the science. We will bring the latest research to diverse audiences, capitalizing on the international research program at the California Academy of Sciences."

Special events, such as live coverage of NASA mission launches, eclipses, or Academy field expeditions will also be projected on the new Morrison dome. These live feeds will be facilitated by a scientist, who will weave in stories and computer animations during breaks in the action. The acoustics of the new dome will also offer excellent opportunities for musical performances and other artistic events.

About the new California Academy of Sciences

Designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Renzo Piano with local partner Stantec Architecture (formerly Chong Partners Architecture), the new California Academy of Sciences will combine inventive architecture and eye-opening exhibits, inspiring its visitors to explore and protect the natural world. Topped with a living planted roof, the building will set a new standard for sustainable architecture. The estimated total cost of the project is $488 million, including building, exhibition, visitor experience, relocation and interim operation costs. The new Academy, which will house the Kimball Natural History Museum, Steinhart Aquarium, and Morrison Planetarium, is slated to open in late 2008.

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HISTORY OF THE MORRISON PLANETARIUM

The Morrison Planetarium at the California Academy of Sciences opened its doors to the public in November of 1952. The 65-foot diameter dome was the first of its kind on the West Coast and was a spectacle in and of itself, but it was the star projector inside the dome that made the Morrison so unique. This projector was not a Zeiss, Spitz, Minolta, Goto, or any other mass-produced planetarium instrument. It was a one-of-a-kind projector, designed and constructed by the staff of the California Academy of Sciences, and was formally referred to as the "Academy Projector."

All of the previous planetaria, whether in Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, Munich, or Tokyo, had used star projectors manufactured by the Carl Zeiss optical works in Germany, where the device was invented. Following World War II, however, the German company fell into Russian hands and was unable to produce new star projectors. Taking advantage of expertise gained during the war, when the Academy was contracted by the U.S. Navy to build and repair optical equipment, Academy technicians decided to build a planetarium projector on their own.

The Academy Projector was built between 1948 and 1952 under the supervision of G. Dallas Hannah and Albert S. Getten. Hannah was a curator of paleontology who, as a result of his professional interest, had become an authority on optical instruments and had made numerous improvements in the use of the microscope. Getten was an experienced instrument maker and designer who worked in the Academy instrument shop during the war. Their design was based largely on that of the Zeiss, but with modifications. The star spheres were placed closer to the center of the projector, and the planet cages moved to the outside (the opposite of the mass distribution of the Zeiss). As a result, the Academy Projector was better-balanced, and it required less power and quieter motors to rotate. This design was so successful that it was imitated by another company some years later.

The task of creating the stars fell upon Staff Astronomer and San Francisco native Leon Edward Salanave. Back in 1948 there were no desktop computers to make the job easy. A catalog of the brightest 33,342 stars on computer cards was purchased. The 3,800 brightest stars were then sorted from these, corresponding to magnitude 5.79 as the dimmest star. Instead of using sheets of metal with tiny holes drilled through it to produce the stars, as the Zeiss manufacturers did, the designers of the Academy Projector decided to try another method.

The starfield was projected from 32 lens assemblies on the instrument. At the base of each lens assembly was a condenser lens with a flat surface. Onto these surfaces, 3,800 grains of carborundum grit—a sand-like abrasive—were placed by hand, with larger grains representing brighter stars. This job alone took 6 months, and when it was completed, a layer of vaporized aluminum was deposited, giving each surface an opaque, mirror-finish. When the carborundum grains were then carefully brushed off, they left tiny holes through which the light could shine. It was thought that the irregular shape of each carborundum grain would produce a correspondingly irregular star image on the dome and look more realistic than the circular stars of other projectors.

After the opening of the Morrison Planetarium, about which national magazines like Coronet declared "They Out-Zeissed Zeiss," the California Academy of Sciences gracefully retired from the star projector-making business.

Before construction began, the cost of building the star projector was estimated at about $75,000. In the end, it cost about twice that: $140,000—nearly $10,000 of which was donated in pennies by the school children of San Francisco in support of the project. A comparable instrument would now cost about $3,000,000.

For over 50 years, the Academy Projector allowed millions of visitors to experience the night sky under Morrison Planetarium's perpetually fog-free dome. In 2003, however, the Academy closed its doors in Golden Gate Park and moved to a temporary facility at 875 Howard Street in downtown San Francisco to allow its seismically damaged facilities to be rebuilt. Although the temporary facility does not have a full-size dome, Morrison Planetarium educators have continued to offer tours of the night sky inside a portable, inflatable planetarium, and the Dean Lecture Series has continued to host lectures about the newest topics in astronomy and astrobiology. In late 2008, a new, 90-foot diameter Morrison Planetarium dome will open inside the rebuilt California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park. While the Academy Projector will not be used inside the dome (it was designed for a 65-foot diameter dome and would not fit the dimensions of the new planetarium), Academy staff are committed to finding a place to display the historic projector, either inside the new building or in another museum. Meanwhile, new state-of-the-art digital projectors will allow the rebuilt Morrison Planetarium to present immersive planetarium shows that recreate the Universe more accurately than ever before, continuing the planetarium's rich history of excellence and scientific advancement.