Planetarium offers patrons a 360° view

The UAA Planetarium and Visualization Theater, or just “the planetarium” for short, was constructed along with the ConocoPhillips Integrated Science Building (CPSB) in late 2009, and classes began utilizing the new technology in Spring 2010.

At the time, not many people knew it existed, let alone exactly what it was capable of. As lecture classes began to be taught inside the room under the visualization dome, students at UAA, either in science major programs or those taking entry-level Astronomy classes, were made abundantly aware of its visual power. Since then, the relatively unknown existence of the facility, tucked in the back of the CPSB, is now enjoyed not only by UAA students, staff and faculty, but also by the Anchorage community as a whole.

Aside from its usefulness as an educational tool, the planetarium is also a presentational medium through which entertainment can be enjoyed. The planetarium overcame its initial obscurity by opening to people who were not enrolled in UAA science classes, and exploring the entertainment angle of the facility in two different ways.

The first is through the showing of weekly films that UAA and the planetarium director, Dr. Andy Puckett, have procured the licenses of. The second way is through unique student and community involvement with the venue on a creative level (engineering projects of sight and sound), which are then available for public viewings. The Northern Light sat down with Dr. Puckett to get an inside glimpse into the inner workings of the planetarium.

“We have two projectors: one in the front, and one in the back. And each one covers half of the dome,” Dr. Puckett said, “So there is a seam that we are very careful to mesh together that goes from your left to your right, directly above your head. Each one of those projectors is fed by four video-rendering computers, so there’s a total of eight that cover the dome, with each computer taking up a one-eighth portion of the screen.”

The computers, with their processing divided into portions, are thus made to process less and do not suffer from hardware lag, allowing them to render higher definition without skipping a beat. This translates to a much more breath-taking image quality.

In addition to pre-rendered shows, the planetarium also offers interactive journeys through Earth and the galaxy.

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“We can lift off and fly through space almost like it’s a video game. And that’s pretty common, everyone is used to that in a video game setting. But what we’ve got is this immersive reality. It’s like you’re in this domed car, where you can see in 360 degrees with your peripheral vision back around your head,” said Dr. Puckett, “Everyone asks me if I can hook up an Xbox to it, but right now we can’t do that, and it’s because of just that – we have eight different computers. We can play a DVD or a game on a 33 by 16 foot screen, but it wouldn’t be taking advantage of it. […] It wouldn’t be immersive in 360 degrees like the things made especially for it.”

Not only are there the weekly showings of these specially fitted planetarium movies, but also the opportunity for creative involvement. DJ’s from UAA have already seen popularity with the Sonic Vision shows, which used Moby’s original visuals sans soundtrack due to licensing. Instead, these shows were set to the DJs own unique soundtrack.

Unfortunately Sonic Vision is will not be returning in the fall, due to the expiration of the visual’s license. There will be more programming like it however, with volunteers creating their own visuals for shows. Dr. Puckett works with such volunteers, and is always open to new ideas and volunteers. For viewers, Puckett advises the cardinal rule of the now-popular planetarium’s events: “Get your tickets in advance, they always fill up.”

More information: The planetarium has two shows upcoming on August 12th: “The Search for Life,” narrated by Harrison Ford, will be making its final run, and “Black Holes” will be playing directly afterwards. On Friday, September 9,Dr. Puckett will be showing the new film, “Cosmic Collisions,” narrated by Robert Redford. When school resumes in the fall, there will be more showings per month and the full schedule, along with descriptions, is available on UAA’s planetarium website at www.uaa.alaska.edu/planetarium.