Press Release

Kelly Mendez (415) 379-5133
Stephanie Stone (415) 379-5121


Narrated by Robert Redford, the show depicts celestial smash-ups
that have dramatically changed our world

SAN FRANCISCO (September 6, 2013) – Starting today, the California Academy of Sciences is presenting a dazzling, high-impact space show, Cosmic Collisions, inside Morrison Planetarium. Narrated by Robert Redford, the all-digital show features images from space and immersive visualizations based on scientific data, revealing the explosive encounters that shaped our solar system, changed the course of life on Earth, and continue to transform our galaxy and Universe. Cosmic Collisions will alternate with Earthquake: Evidence of a Restless Planet and will play daily* through January 30, 2014.

Cosmic Collisions presents a view of the cosmos that is radically different from our everyday experience watching the peaceful night sky. Collisions are common occurrences in space and are currently understood by scientists as a key mechanism in the evolution of the Universe. They are the spectacular and inevitable result of gravity pulling together objects such as planets, stars, and galaxies, which are in constant motion through space. The show re-creates a full range of collisions that are usually invisible to us, either because they unfold over vast expanses of time and space, spanning billions of years and trillions of miles (as in the clash of galaxies), or because they occur almost instantaneously on a subatomic scale (as in the collision of protons in the heart of the Sun).

Scene-by-Scene Description

Cosmic Collisions starts quietly, with a view of the deceptively peaceful night sky. But viewers soon encounter a comet approaching Earth. The comet misses, but bits of rock from the comet’s tail, called meteoroids, burn up spectacularly and harmlessly in the Earth’s atmosphere.

The audience is then transported back in time to witness a wandering planet-sized object explosively crashing into the young Earth about 4.5 billion years ago. In the aftermath of the collision, the swirling mass of molten debris that circles Earth starts to coalesce. The narrator explains that we are witnessing the birth of our own Moon, which took place over a single month, according to scientific simulations. This major milestone in our planet’s history was responsible for the tilt of Earth’s axis and therefore our seasons. The Moon’s gravitational pull causes the ebb and flow of the ocean’s tides.

Other collisions affect us each and every day. Protons colliding in the process of nuclear fusion generate the Sun’s tremendous energy. This energy, in the form of light, creates the ideal conditions for life to flourish on our planet. Viewers witness in remarkable detail the turbulent face of our Sun in spectacular images captured by NASA satellites, with huge fiery storms that spew out mountains of ionized particles that hurtle towards Earth at more than a million miles an hour. The blustery streams of charged particles from the Sun—the solar wind—could endanger all life on Earth by sweeping away large portions of our upper atmosphere, but Earth’s magnetic field repels the solar particles like a protective cocoon.

As charged particles strike the Earth’s magnetic field, some of these particles make it through to the upper atmosphere, producing the stunning glow of the aurora borealis, or “northern lights,” which the audience views from a vantage point high in outer space.

Cosmic Collisions then goes back in time to a re-creation of a catastrophic event that changed the course of life on Earth. Using data from Los Alamos National Laboratory, viewers experience an immersive simulation of an enormous meteorite impact that heated the Earth’s atmosphere in a flaming shroud and hastened the end of the Age of Dinosaurs 65 million years ago. The ensuing destruction and darkness, combined with the subsequent volcanic eruptions and changing sea levels, obliterated almost three-quarters of all life on Earth. But the impact also cleared the way for mammals—and eventually humans—to thrive.

Can such a catastrophic event like this happen again? The show visualizes a possible future scenario that has frequently been the subject of news stories, novels, and blockbuster movies—a devastating impact of a large asteroid on Earth. There’s less than a one-in-a-million chance in any given year that an asteroid over one kilometer in diameter will hit Earth. The show explores how such a collision might be averted, pointing out that, contrary to popular wisdom, the best option may not be blowing up the asteroid, because that could produce dangerous fragments; the best approach may be pulling the asteroid safely out of the path of destruction using the small gravitational pull of a spacecraft. In a dramatic scene, a “doomsday” asteroid barely misses Earth after being successfully tugged off course by the gravity of a spacecraft flying alongside.

The show then takes the audience outside Earth’s orbit, on a soaring journey to the outskirts of the Milky Way to witness the densely packed stars in a distant globular cluster. Unlike most of space, where there are great distances between objects, the stars in these clusters are crammed together, making collisions more likely. Viewers witness how gravity brings together two small stars to form a larger, rejuvenated star—a rare cosmic smash-up that, even in the heart of a globular cluster, occurs only once every 100,000 years.

Finally, shifting billions of years into the future, the show predicts an encounter of staggering proportions as two galaxies collide. Our Milky Way galaxy runs headlong into its closest neighbor, the Andromeda spiral galaxy, a cosmic merging that produces a new giant elliptical galaxy. As the narrator explains, “Stars and planets in these galaxies won’t actually collide. They’re much too far apart. Scientists think they’ll simply slide past one another.” Using astrophysical research to create 3D visualizations of an intergalactic ballet, the Milky Way and Andromeda galaxies swirl and stretch away from each other before coming back together again. From this single simulated sequence—where each second indicates the passage of 40 million years—viewers see how cosmic collisions have shaped the Universe’s myriad galaxies and how our familiar Milky Way was formed by collisions among many smaller galaxies over vast expanses of time.

Staying true to the tradition of Morrison Planetarium, the show includes an interlude with a live presenter, who takes viewers on a virtual journey to Arizona, Canada, and Russia to look at the evidence of more recent impacts, including the surprise explosion at Chelyabinsk, Russia, in February 2013. A flight away from Earth reveals the estimated number of asteroids orbiting near our planet, reminding us that we live in a dynamic solar system.

Cosmic Collisions was developed in 2006 by the American Museum of Natural History, New York, in collaboration with the Denver Museum of Nature & Science; GOTO, Inc., Tokyo, Japan; and the Shanghai Science and Technology Museum, China. The show was created with the major support and partnership of NASA, Science Missions Directorate, Heliophysics Division.