Close-up of the stars: The astronomy shows are convincingly 3-D and one of the projectors will be devoted purely to research. Picture: SUPPLIED
Close-up of the stars: The astronomy shows are convincingly 3-D and one of the projectors will be devoted purely to research. Picture: SUPPLIED

One of the first young visitors to experience the revamped Iziko Planetarium and Digital Dome in Cape Town was evidently hustled out of the darkened room by an anxious mum. "Sensory overload," the parent explained tersely.

Reclining in what seems remarkably like space as planets and stars whirl overhead during the programme Asteroid: Mission Extreme, one gets a sense of what the child felt.

The planetarium is one of only six fully fledged planetaria in Africa and its new digital visualisation technology promises "immersive multisensory edutainment" for young and old.

Computer-generated shows are convincingly 3-D, pumping perception with visual data like an Imax theatre on steroids. Astronomy programmes are perfect for the dome: beautiful, mysterious, vast. But anything shot in 360° glory can potentially be screened. Future shows will take pupils into worlds as diverse as human cells (mini-universes) or atomic structures — or send them flying over Rio.

Picture: SUPPLIED
Picture: SUPPLIED

The Dome’s capabilities, however, extend past edutainment to serious academic study. The University of Cape Town, University (UCT) of the Western Cape and Cape Peninsula University of Technology all contributed funds to the upgrade and on the day I visited, two astronomers were waiting for a session on the new software, called Dark Matter. The Dome’s six laser projectors run off serious computer power: two clusters stuffed with powerful graphics processing units have been installed. One of the projectors will be devoted purely to research use. Michelle Cluver of the Inter-University Institute for Data Intensive Astronomy says the high fidelity projection capabilities will allow researchers to put "very rich data sets" up on the dome and visually fly through millions of galaxies.

One such data set, explains UCT’s SA research chairman in astrophysics and space science, Prof Tom Jarrett, is called the Two Micron All-Sky Survey or 2Mass. It has looked at the entire world’s sky and catalogued more than 300-million objects.

Earth-based and space telescopes including SA’s Southern African Large Telescope (SALT) continually record new data. The MeerKAT and Southern Kilometre Array (SKA) radio telescopes will soon be adding to material collected.

While researchers have been sharing and studying these data sets on screens and computers for years, the problem is they’re flat. "You lose the depth perception," says Cluver.

Being able to "fly" through space allows one to see in a new way, a bit like the invention of the microscope and telescope allowed for radically altered perception and understanding. And being able to visually examine data with 140-odd students or other researchers makes the dome a powerful "collaborative immersive environment".

"Studies that have been done about learning in this kind of dome find that people retain what they see so much better," Cluver says.

"They think that because [the visual stimulation] is so different to what you’re used to, your brain can’t store it in the same old place. It has to store it in a new, interesting part of the brain that you’re able to access."

Learning to use the new technology has been a challenge — at first no one could figure out how to switch the stars on!

Scientists also rely on software algorithms, but "visual inspection is an important part of science", says Cluver. "An algorithm will do exactly what you tell it to. What happens if you don’t know what you’re looking for? You can’t programme that into anything. It’s a whole discovery space."

One of the earliest scientists to use full domes to study data was Hawaii-based astronomer Brent Tully. "When he first saw data in 3-D [about 10 years ago], it was a completely new experience for him, and he’s an old wizard — he’s seen it all," says Jarrett. "He’s still publishing."

All levels of academics will benefit from workshops or shared sessions in the dome, from first-years to professors. Examples of how it could be utilised include teaching students to work with new data cubes from MeerKAT — a steep learning curve for all, that would otherwise require a lot of one-on-one training.

It’s brand-new territory. "Aside from Brent Tully’s work, we’re at the forefront of putting data sets on the domes and using them for research," says Cluver. "Yes, worldwide."

Learning to use the new technology has been a challenge — at first no one could figure out how to switch the stars on!

Research possibilities are not limited to astronomers. Marine biology, climate change, biodiversity, health and even art and architecture practitioners will be able to use this very different platform, says planetarium manager Theo Ferreira.

They’ve already had interest from a head of ethnomusicology and African music. And in Bloemfontein (the first South African planetarium to get the technology in 2013) the departments of economic development, small business development, tourism and environmental affairs used the dome to put up aerial data of the Free State and examine water, land-use and biodiversity patterns.

"That’s going to be a very powerful way to speak to policy makers," says Cluver.

In the future, additional software could allow "dome casting": a lecture given in Cape Town could be watched in real time by global researchers in other planetaria, a bit like a Skype session in a dome.

Close-up of the stars: The astronomy shows are convincingly 3-D and one of the projectors will be devoted purely to research.
Close-up of the stars: The astronomy shows are convincingly 3-D and one of the projectors will be devoted purely to research.

The digital tech has ousted the planetarium’s stalwart analogue star machine. Ferreira is not sentimental about the change. Bulbs won’t blow at crucial moments; the loose piece of equipment that projected the Magellanic Clouds will no longer fall off.

Laser as opposed to lamp projectors are more economical in the long term (lamps need regular replacement). What’s a little sad is that the infinite pitch black of the past night sky is no longer, as the projection does not achieve the same contrast.

"That’s the only negative and when you see what you can do [with the new technology], it outweighs everything else," Ferreira says.

"In the 1950s we were showing people planets. Now we can get further out. The biggest difference is that you can leave the earth, travel back in time and out into space. Everything we did before was an earth-based experience," he says.

"Now you can travel through our solar system, galaxy and beyond. You can look back at the structure of the universe."

• The Iziko Planetarium and Digital Dome shows usually run daily.

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