Adler Planetarium Completes Massive NV-Powered Digital Projector

The Adler Planetarium has finished a major two-year upgrade project that's replaced the facility's forty year-old Zeiss Mark VI projector with a "Digital Starball" system designed by Global Immersion Ltd. The new digital system is powered by an array of Nvdia Quadro GPUs and was designed to provide an update that could power the planetarium's star attractions for years to come.

Located on Northerly Island, the Adler Planetarium was built in 1930 and shares Chicago's Museum Campus with the Shedd Aquarium and the Museum of Natural History. It has long enjoyed special historic status as the first planetarium in the western hemisphere, but the age of the museum's primary projector had become an increasing problem. McCain and Obama tangled briefly over a $3 million earmark to replace the unit in 2008 during one of that campaign's presidential debates.

The specs behind the system are impressive. The 71-foot dome of the Grainger Sky Theater now contains a score of military-grade projectors with an 8kx8k resolution. The final 64 megapixel image is generated by an array of 42 Nvidia Quadro GPUs and offers an unprecedented degree of real-time modeling horsepower. "Our goal was to create an experience that was the closest you could get to outer space travel,” said Paul H. Knappenberger Jr., the Adler’s president. “We want visitors to feel like they are really traveling through the universe to see galaxies collide and witness stars and planets being born."

When the stars come out these days, they're a whole lot clearer than they used to be.

This has played out in several ways. The planetarium's model of the universe was created in part from high-definition photos captured around the world and via the Hubble. The final scenes as shown at the Sky Theater took weeks of number crunching. According to the museum's CTO, it took supercomputers at NASA's Ames Research Center more than three weeks to calculate the movement of some one billion particles 7,200 times. The final data set, meanwhile, was more than 400TB.

The Planetarium has used its new capabilities to offer audiences visualizations of stars being torn apart by black holes, galactic collisions, and supernovae. The new digital system is also capable of giving a much wider 'virtual tour' of the universe. The first Zeiss projector installed at the Adler in 1930, was completely mechanical and could project more than five thousand stars. The Mark VI, installed in 1970, could project more than seven thousand stars. The new system, in contrast, can be updated to incorporate new findings, perspectives, or increased image fidelity on already existent planets. It doesn't qualify as limitless, but the digital system can be updated in ways that the old projectors, for all their master-level craftsmanship and astonishingly intricate operation, couldn't be.

As an added bonus, the whole system can be controlled via iPad. This image courtesy of Ken Brown. Other images courtesy of the Adler Planetarium

"The system in the Grainger Sky Theater surpasses anything we have ever done before in terms of display performance," says Andrew Zadarnowski, Senior Project Manager at Global Immersion and Project Manager for the Grainger Sky Theater renovation. "The resolution and contrast of this display will completely immerse visitors in what will seem to be the real thing - audiences can be closer to touching the stars and galaxies in our Universe than they can anywhere else on the planet."