$1 million grant means an upgrade for science center's planetarium

High definition isn’t just for televisions anymore. The increased picture quality has slowly been creeping into other applications. The Carnegie Science Center recently upgraded its planetarium projection system to a high-definition system.

The planetarium was founded in 1939 and has been sponsored by the Buhl Foundation since its absorption into the Carnegie Science Center. The Buhl Foundation is a multipurpose foundation based in Pittsburgh that gives out grants to public institutions to further public works.

In September, the Buhl Foundation donated a $1 million projection system to the Carnegie Science Center. It is the single largest donation to the science center in 2006. To reflect its new video capabilities, the Henry Buhl Jr. Planetarium was renamed the Buhl Digital Dome.

“This latest grant is really a way of putting us on the cutting edge,” said Doreen E. Boyce, president of the Buhl Foundation. “And the potential of this technology is huge. It’s mind blowing.”

The donation included DigitalSky, powerful computer-graphics software developed by SkyScan, Inc., of Nashua, N.H. The state-of-the-art system can project up to 5 million pixels per frame of high-definition video, while standard digital video is between one-half and 1 million pixels per frame. High-definition pictures can include much crisper detail and are more pleasing to the eye.

The images are projected onto the 50-foot dome screen above the seating to give the viewers a true three-dimensional experience. Instead of merely watching a movie, the audience seems to move through a three-dimensional space.

For astronomy education, the planetarium uses the latest data from NASA’s image databases in its shows. It can recreate a full, digital universe from that data and can display up-to-date images from the Hubble telescope.

To coordinate the highly intricate shows and displays, over 100 pieces of equipment work in sync. Slide projectors, video, special effects, and the digital star projector must orchestrate the planetarium experience, and the new dome means even more capabilities.

“I could turn the sun off if I want to turn the sun off, and then I could spin it around,” said James Hughes, producer for the Buhl Planetarium. “It’s a one click, and another click.”

The planetarium also plans to exhibit programs for other scientific field applications, such as innovations in biology, chemistry, biotechnology, medicine, engineering, and architecture. “You could fly through molecules rather than the solar system or the universe,” said Hughes.

With the new dome, the planetarium isn’t limited to its existing repertoire. “You can bring up a JPEG and map it all over the dome,” Hughes said. “It’s like a giant DVD player. I can sit here, and I can hit pause and it pauses.”

However, the Buhl Digital Dome is not solely a high-definition cinema.

With the new software and projection system, the center also operates as a full-scale production facility. The center produces programming and shows for other planetariums worldwide.

“They are in over 20 countries and are now translating into over 14 different languages. If new equipment will be able to facilitate that, then they’ll be able to make better shows more quickly with the Pittsburgh name on it,” said Boyce.

The Carnegie Science Center plans to air its own original production, a space exploration to Mars, in spring 2007. The program is based on William K. Hartmann’s book A Traveler’s Guide to Mars.

With enhanced video and production capabilities, the new Buhl Digital Dome expands the science center’s role as an educational resource for all levels of academic study.

Of course, the upgraded planetarium also provides a new and exciting experience for casual visitors. And it’s more than a rehearsed production. With the press of a button, the person operating the planetarium can change a look at the ocean into a view of the auroras, or even a thunderstorm.

“This is all real time,” said Hughes. “It’s not like the man behind the curtains.”