Press Release

Stephanie Stone (415) 379-5121
Andrew Ng (415) 379-5123


Morrison Planetarium will be part of the new California Academy of Sciences

Planetarium Dome SAN FRANCISCO ( September 18, 2008) — 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. On September 27, 2008, the Morrison will make history once again when it 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 employ the latest technologies to create unprecedented immersive experiences for its visitors. It will be the largest all-digital planetarium in the world. In addition, 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 tour the cosmos, “fly” to other planets, or embark on other spacy adventures. The 290-seat dome also has the capability 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. “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 was provided by Global Immersion, Sky-Skan, and SCISS. By partnering with three leaders in the field, the new Morrison benefits 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 2005, when contractors broke ground on the new Academy building site in Golden Gate Park. Unlike most planetarium domes, the new Morrison 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 Philippine 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 technology from Spitz, Inc.—was installed during the summer of 2008.

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 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 an accurate re-creation of many virtual environments—from Golden Gate Park to the Virgo Cluster, 60 million light years away. 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—corresponding not to an experience under a dome, but to 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.”

A wide variety of programming will be offered inside the new Morrison Planetarium. School group shows will be designed to meet 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 premier attraction in the new dome, however, will be the immersive digital video productions designed by the Academy’s planetarium team. During opening year, the inaugural production will be Fragile Planet, a 30-minute virtual journey from Earth to the outer reaches of the Universe and back—a journey that reveals how special planet Earth really is. Narrated by Sigourney Weaver and interwoven with talks by a live presenter, Fragile Planet lifts off through the roof of the Academy, zooms outside the atmosphere, and gives audiences an astronaut’s view of Earth. The journey then continues to the Moon, Mars, and beyond the Milky Way to search for habitats that might host extraterrestrial life. The show’s theme—that Earth is the only known haven for life, and thus is important to protect—echoes the themes of biodiversity and sustainability that run throughout the rest of the Academy’s exhibits. Fragile Planet was written and produced by the Academy’s planetarium team, whose collective credits include work at the American Museum of Natural History, Industrial Light & Magic, Pixar, and Lucasfilm Animation.

In the coming years, special events such as lectures, live coverage of NASA mission launches, and broadcasts from Academy field expeditions will also take place in the new Morrison Planetarium. The acoustics of the dome will also offer excellent opportunities for musical performances and other artistic events.