Someday our Milky Way Galaxy and the neighboring Andromeda Galaxy may
come crashing together in a horrendous collision that will twist and
distort their shapes beyond recognition. Of course, to see that,
you’ll have to wait several billion years. But thanks to a combination
of research science, Hollywood computer graphics, and large-scale,
“immersive” visualization, visitors to the Smithsonian Institution’s
National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC, can witness such an
event today.

The Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore, MD, the
scientific home of NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, is extending its
tradition of stunning imagery by creating a spectacular scientific
visualization of two galaxies colliding. This incredibly detailed and
immersive, full-dome video sequence will be a highlight of “Infinity
Express: A 20-Minute Tour of the Universe,” the inaugural show in the
National Air and Space Museum’s newly renovated Einstein Planetarium,
opening Saturday, April 13.

The scientific visualization by Dr. Frank Summers, an astrophysicist
in STScI’s Office of Public Outreach, depicts a tremendous collision
of two spiral galaxies. Because such events take hundreds of millions
of years to occur, researchers use supercomputer simulations to study
how galaxies are transformed and merge together. Dr. Summers has taken
research data provided by Dr. Chris Mihos (Case Western Reserve
University) and Dr. Lars Hernquist (Harvard University), and visualized
it using the same software that Hollywood uses to produce blockbuster
visual effects.

The result brings astrophysics out of the academic setting and presents
a scientifically correct, yet compellingly beautiful animation directly
to the planetarium audience. “By combining research simulations with
Hollywood visualization techniques, we can create animations that are
both accurate and artistic, while visually communicating complex
astronomical events and ideas to the public,” says Dr. Summers.

This contribution to the National Air and Space Museum marks the first
release of scientific visualizations for full-dome video planetariums
from the Informal Science Education Group at STScI. While Hubble images
are a mainstay of planetarium shows, full-dome scientific visualizations
represent a new level of astronomy outreach.

“NASA imagery will greatly benefit this emerging planetarium technology,
and we can provide high-quality, dynamic content backed by the expertise
of Hubble astronomers,” says John Stoke, manager of Informal Science
Education at STScI. Going forward, his group will distribute this galaxy
collision sequence and other full-dome scientific visualizations, free
of charge, to planetariums and show producers across the country and
around the world.

Planetariums have entered a new era of full-dome digital video that
immerses the viewer in the dynamic wonders of the universe. The video,
projected across the entire hemisphere of a planetarium dome, has up to
23 times the resolution of a standard television and is wrapped 360
degrees around the audience, surrounding them in the experience.

While such systems are generally only in the larger planetariums today,
technological advances are bringing the capability for full-dome video
to thousands of smaller planetariums in the next couple of years.
Worldwide, 100 million people visit planetariums every year.

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