University of Alaska Anchorage’s Planetarium & Visualization Theater presents movies with discussion

“Chasing the Ghost Particle: from the South Pole to the Edge of the Universe” is but one of many great shows.

University of Alaska Anchorage’s Planetarium & Visualization Theateris 10 meters (33 feet) with 62 seats, and shows movies and lectures. Photo by Matt Schmitz 2022.

UAA has a lot of activities that are recurring and habit forming. One of my favorites happens most Friday nights at the Planetarium & Visualization Center. There, an immersive experience awaits viewers.

On January 27, I went to see “Chasing the Ghost Particle: from the South Pole to the Edge of the Universe.” The plan was to see “Phantom of the Universe” first, but I got there late. When they say they will shut the doors ten minutes before the showing, they mean it. And I understood once I was inside: The experience of watching a show on a dome cannot be interrupted with people entering,exiting and finding their seats. The movie can be seen on YouTube, but it is a different sensory experience to see it on a 10-meter dome, sitting in an angled chair and looking up. With the space shots, it is easy to forget that you are sitting inside a theater.

“Chasing the Ghost Particle” is about IceCube, “the biggest and strangest [astronomical] detector in the world.” Unlike space telescopes, which most people would expect to be on a mountaintop, IceCube is buried deep in the ice of Antarctica. Telescopes normally look at light from stars, but IceCube looks for neutrinos.

The IceCube Neutrino Observatory website describes neutrinos as “nearly massless subatomic particles that are electrically neutral. They can travel at nearly the speed of light from the edge of the universe without being deflected by magnetic fields or absorbed by matter. They travel in straight lines from their source. This makes them excellent messengers of information about the objects or events in which they originate.”

The film takes viewers from space to Antarctica where the scientists and workers who designed and made the neutrino observation device speak about the making of it. Images of scientists in their labs come up as they share facts and observations. There are a surprising number of scenes where there is no talking, and one sits back and “travels.” One scene takes viewers on a journey to the earth, starting on the outer edge of our solar system. We pass planets and get closer to the sun but stop at Earth. As the camera angles down, we learn of the many telescopes, but how “only one” is buried in one cubic kilometer of ice. Viewers learn of the “wide net” that must be cast for IceCube to capture images, and why it must be huge and in the dark. Through this imaging, there is a feeling of comprehending the vast area that scientists had to consider when building the observatory.

Viewers are taken into deep holes 2.5 kilometers under the ice and learn that “over 5,000 light sensors called ‘Doms’ were lowered and locked into place.” The narrator says that IceCube is taller than the Statue of Liberty and the Eiffel Tower. IceCube is a gigantic cube of ice, a kilometer on every side”. While Earth is constantly getting bombarded by neutrinos, “IceCube is looking for high energy neutrinos and it looks in all directions, all the time.”

The movie shares the details of the construction and planning, and why neutrino study is important. Two hundred fifty researchers from 41 institutions and 12 countries contributed to the making of the observatory, including Dr. Katherine Rawlins of UAA, who spoke and ran a Q & A session at the end. Viewers asked diverse questions about other neutrino observatories, where they come from and if some events make more than others, and what affects neutrinos. Dr. Rawlins was positive after the show and said “they asked some good questions.”

While “Chasing Ghost Particles” is not scheduled to be seen again on the dome this semester, the UAA Planetarium has a schedule of shows planned through April. Check it out and be sure to buy your tickets through UAA Tix in advance. There is a discount for UAA students with valid IDs. Parking is not complicated, but if you have never been to the shows before, it helps to plan for extra time and to know where you will park.

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