Passport to the Universe – film

Passport to the Universe – film
California Academy of Sciences, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco

Can you imagine a trip from our Solar System into the Virgo Supercluster of galaxies 60 million light years away? Then whizzing home via a shortcut through a black hole? If not, here's some good news: the American Museum of Natural History has not only imagined it, but also imaged it, in Passport to the Universe.

Passport to the Universe is an old favorite, the first planetarium show for the new Hayden Planetarium when the Rose Center of the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) opened in 2000. The film was updated in 2017 using data from NASA telescopes and probes, and with major support from the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco. The Academy is where I saw the film, but it's also showing in science centers elsewhere.

California Academy of Sciences Museum
The California Academy of Sciences was founded in 1853 as a learned society. Although still carrying out scientific research, the Academy now concentrates on the museum and public education. The museum contains the Morrison Planetarium, the Steinhart Aquarium and the Natural History Museum in a building designed by internationally known Italian architect Renzo Piano.

Morrison Planetarium
The Morrison Planetarium is a 75-foot dome whose frame is tilted to mimic the Earth's axial tilt. It's made of recycled steel and the NanoSeam projection screen “seems to disappear when lit”. That's a good description, and it's impressive when you're looking up at a virtual cosmos created from astronomical data.

Making the film
The script was written by Ann Druyan and Steven Soter. Druyan is a writer, producer and director specializing in science communication. Soter is an astrophysicist who's currently at scientist-in-residence at New York University and Research Associate at the AMNH. Both worked with Carl Sagan to write the series Cosmos.

The film
What is our place in the cosmos?
People used to think that Earth was the center of the cosmos. But in the 16th century Nicolaus Copernicus proposed a model in which the Sun was at the center, and the Earth and other planets revolved around it.

Yet the Copernican revolution was just the beginning. Modern telescopes have expanded our understanding of the Universe enough to realize that although the Sun is the center of the Solar System, it isn't the center of the Galaxy. And our Galaxy isn't at the centre of a Universe vaster than we ever imagined.

Look up at the night sky
With the unaided eye, there are around 6000 stars visible. I should add that even with good eyesight and a clear dark sky, most people couldn't possibly see all of them. If you live in the northern hemisphere, many southern stars will be out of sight, and the stars of the far north aren't visible to people in the southern hemisphere. The film makes the point that for every one of the stars we might see by just looking up, there are 50 million that we couldn't see. Our Milky Way has billions of stars in it.

And our galaxy holds more than stars. There are vast clouds of gas collapsing to make new stars. These stellar nurseries are mostly hydrogen gas. However there are also heavier elements. They formed in nuclear reactions in stars or in the supernova explosions of dying stars. We're reminded that, as Carl Sagan said, we're made of star stuff.

Journey highlights
Our virtual journey takes us past Jupiter and its moons, volcanic Io and ice-covered Europa with its subsurface ocean. Then we fly under the rings of Saturn before zooming from the Solar System out into the Galaxy and through the Orion Nebula. The nebula is an amazing stellar nursery just visible to the earthbound as a fuzzy patch.

Even the edge of our Milky Way isn't the end of the Universe. It's a member of a group of galaxies called the Local Group. (Astronomers can be unimaginative in naming things.) It contains two large spiral galaxies, the Milky Way and the Andromeda Galaxy (M31), plus the smaller spiral Triangulum Galaxy. There are also five dozen or so small galaxies.

The Local Group, some 10 million light years across, is just one collection of galaxies in the Virgo Supercluster. The supercluster contains at least 100 galaxy clusters, and is itself part of a cluster of superclusters.

From the edge of the observable Universe, it's a long way home. So we take a short-cut through a black hole. If you've seen the movie Interstellar, you'll have done this before – but not on a fantastic planetarium screen.

Worth seeing?
Definitely worth seeing if you get a chance. It's suitable for all age groups and the visuals are fantastic. The film itself is twenty minutes long, and a planetarium presenter added a short presentation with a short update on some current astronomy.

Space is too vast for humans to complete such a journey in the flesh, but almost everything that we saw is real. I say “almost”, because no one knows what goes on in a black hole. From what we do know about them, we probably would not find them as useful shortcuts through space. But who knows?

You Should Also Read:
Heroes of the Revolution – Doodles
Jupiter's Galilean Moons
Milky Way – Our Galaxy

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