Archived in 2022

Originally posted on 10 Nov 2012

Last night I got to attend a cocktail reception at California Academy of Sciences, celebrating the 60th Anniversary of the Morrison Planetarium. A little wine, food and chatting near Claude the Albino Alligator{.broken_link}, then everyone was off to the planetarium to see a presentation about its history and its future. Some things I learned:

  • When they built the Morrison Planetarium there were only 6 other “major planetariums” (defined as having a dome of 50′ or greater diameter) in the world. All of them had projectors developed and built by Zeiss{.broken_link}. But at that time Zeiss was in East Germany so the Morrison couldn’t get a projector. During WWII the Academy had aided the war effort by fixing binoculars, telescopes and other optics so they figured they could just build their own projector. They did and managed to out-Zeiss Zeiss for quality, furthering the technology of planetarium projectors in the process.
  • The Zeiss projectors used round holes for the stars, giving them a flat, lifeless appearance. When designing the Morrison projector, the stars were enhanced by placing a minuscule piece of optic abrasive on each of the over 33,000 stars on the projector plates, coating the plate with aluminum, then manually removing each piece of abrasive. When projected, these irregular star holes had the effect of making the stars look like they were twinkling.
  • During the first year of its existence, the projector did not include the moon. While the stars and planets orbit the sun, the moon orbits the earth and therefore needed an entirely different mechanism in the projector. It also had to move through its phases. The resulting “black box” moon projecting contraption was so complicated that in all the time it was used it was not serviced for fear no one would be able to put it back together again.
  • The current planetarium dome is essentially the largest computer monitor in the Cal Academy. It has an edge-to-edge resolution of 4000 pixels.
  • The planetarium created a special video program to accompany the Cal Academy Earthquake{.broken_link} exhibit. The opening scene of that program is filmed in Point Reyes, not only because it’s beautiful but also because Tomales Bay precisely follows the San Andreas Fault.
  • That opening scene is composed of thousands upon thousands of individual high-definition photographs, giving it its 3-D feel. Except for the sky. The sky was filmed using an iPhone, because that’s all they had on hand when the perfect sky happened to occur.
  • Astronomers have identified tens of thousands of asteroids in our solar system but estimate that there are actually millions of them out there, meaning there’s undoubtedly a lot out there which have the potential to hit Earth.
  • The Morrison Planetarium is working with the B612 Foundation to help make the Sentinel Satellite{.broken_link} a reality. Sentinel will orbit the sun just slightly closer than the Earth does, giving it a faster orbit than the planet. It will then act as a lookout/advance guard against asteroids which intersect Earth’s orbit, allowing scientists to calculate which—if any—of them might pose a danger to the planet.