2009 Annual Science Report

NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory - Titan Reporting  |  JUL 2008 – AUG 2009

EPO Activity: Development of a Live Digital Planetarium Show About Astrobiology of Titan

Project Progress

We have begun the development, and publicly presented the first prototype of, a live digital planetarium show about Titan and Astrobiology, using the all-digital Gates Planetarium at Denver Museum of Nature & Science (DMNS), one of the highest resolution “full dome” theaters in the world.
This live lecture planetarium show makes use of the digital imaging capabilities of the dome, through the innovative Uniview software, a “real time” virtual simulation of the known universe based on accurate astronomical databases and modeling. The inclusion of live musicians, who serve to introduce each section of the show, helps to attract an audience beyond those who reliably come to space science events at the planetarium, and help to create a relaxing and evocative atmosphere conducive to wonder and learning.

With Uniview we can utilize the SPICE Kernels that spacecraft teams use to describe mission trajectories, and create virtual versions which can be followed along through the simulation. Using 3-D spacecraft models, the public can follow spacecraft missions shown with breathtaking realism within the immersive display. We have a detailed model of the Cassini spacecraft, and we are using the most recently updated SPICE kernels of Cassini, including the many Titan flybys, to show the public the fantastic journey of Cassini and Huygens in exploring Titan. In addition to the live lecturer, a second operator controls the Uniview software, allowing these flybys to be seen from any perspective deemed instructive and/or entertaining. Various Cassini and Huygens image data sets, including camera data, infrared spectrometer data and radar data, are being texture mapped and rendered on the moon’s surface.

The atmosphere is visually peeled away, and various visuals are used together with an original script and musical score, both written by EPO lead David Grinspoon, to explore themes of Titan and Astrobiology for the public. The visual content of our prototype was directed by Dr. KaChun Yu, Curator of Space Sciences at DMNS, in collaboration with Dr. Grinspoon.

Once the prototyping phase is complete, many parts of this live show will be freely shared with the large and growing network of digital planetariums. More than three dozen planetariums worldwide currently license Uniview, and these theaters will be able to make immediate use of the show content without modification. The other digital full dome planetarium theaters (350 as of this writing, with half in the United States) have licensed real-time visualization software from competing vendors. However all of these theaters are equipped with the ability to playback pre-rendered full-dome movies. A “domemaster” standard exists which allow theaters with very different projection, graphical back-end, and theater configurations to share pre-rendered content. Since Uniview can save out high resolution “domemaster” frames for a presentation, the visual sequences of our planetarium show can be delivered to any other facility to be played back, allowing for a national and international distribution of the products of this effort.

Our prototype for this show, named “Life Out There” was premiered for a public audience on November 3, 2009. This show, with little advertising (see figure 1 below), sold out completely and generated a long waiting list, partly on the strength of the reputation of the local musicians and scientists who participated, and partly on the strength of the evocative subject matter of space exploration and extraterrestrial life. (As of this writing, audience surveys from this recent show – 1 week ago – are still being collated and analyzed.) An advance article in the weekly Denver newspaper Westword also helped to spread the word (http://www.westword.com/events/life-out-there-1297630/). The prototype show was extremely well received by the audience. As a result of the success of the live prototype, Drs. Grinspoon and Yu are preparing a paper describing the technique and results for the Journal of Astronomy Education, and are actively working on a new version of the show, building on the first prototype and incorporating improvements and lessons from this experience, which will run for three nights in February 2010.