Expedition to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center

We recently traveled to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center to gather reference imagery for our planetarium show production about human spaceflight to Mars. What an epic trip!

It was surreal to walk inside of the Vehicle Assembly Building and travel up to the 37th floor of this incredibly huge single-story building. Currently the VAB is being retrofitted so that the SLS rocket can be vertically assembled within. This retrofit includes special motorized platforms which can be moved into place according to the needs of the project at hand.

The Mobile Launcher Platform is a sight to behold. We walked underneath the platform and looked through the massive exhaust duct where the SLS rockets boosters will blast off. The platform is currently being altered in order to support the heavier weight and additional thrust of the SLS.

Walking underneath the crawler transporter was a good moment to grasp it’s immense scale. It is such a strange mechanical behemoth and so it was difficult to imagine it in motion to slowly transport a standing rocket while also keeping it level. When the time comes, the crawler will carry both the Mobile Launcher Platform and the SLS from the Vehicle Assembly Building to the launch pad.

Exploring Launch Pad 39B was exciting from a historical perspective and also looking to the future. This launch site was used for the Apollo 10 launch (Saturn V), three Skylab missions (Saturn 1B), and 53 space shuttle launches. Currently the pad is being retrofitted so it can withstand the thrust levels expected from SLS and other large-power rockets.

And of course we had to visit the rocket garden and Saturn V displayed horizontally…

Many thanks to the amazing NASA staff for their generosity and eagerness. It was a wonderfully inspirational trip that has proved vital for the production of our planetarium show. Now we’re back to the grindstone and cranking out 3D animation for the show. Long live NASA!

Uncharted Domain – MassArt 2017: Fulldome Show

During the 2017 Spring semester at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, students explored the topics of memory, transformation, and the outsider. In less than 5 months these students collaborated on all aspects of storytelling, concept development, video shoots, surround sound design, and 4k fulldome production.

It’s amazing what these students were able to create within one semester!
Due to the success of the previous 2015 and 2013 MassArt shows, we decided to work again with MassArt to bring art students into the planetarium. This semester the course was taught by Eric Freeman & Chico Colvard. Special thanks to Dan Callahan & Michael Dunne as the TA’s. Together they all did an incredible job of enabling the students to be creative within the huge technical hurdles.

Students: Camille Hinsey-Langlais, Chloe Dubois, Emily Quinlivan, Wren Quinn, Aven Paquette, Sam Aprea, Kelli Davies, Dylan Soulard
Media Production Instructor: Eric Freeman
Storytelling Instructor: Chico Colvard
Teaching Assistants: Dan Callahan, Michael Dunne
Special Thanks: Jason Fletcher, Nita Sturiale

Domemasters Freely Available

  • Available for planetarium use. Please contact me to obtain a download link.
  • 4k domemaster frames, 30fps, 5.1 surround & stereo audio
  • 2k MP4
  • 1k MP4

Terms: permission to freely screen to the public in planetariums as you see fit. You must screen the short in full and unedited. Not to be used in other shows without permission.


Conferences & Festivals
— HUBweek 2017, Swissnex Dome (Boston, MA)
— HUBweek 2018, Immersive Dome (Boston, MA)

International Planetariums
— Eugenides Planetarium (Athens, Greece)
— Mark Rutherford School, Portable Planetarium (Bedford, UK)
— Portable Planetarium (Buenos Aires, Argentina)
— Iziko South African Museum, Iziko Planetarium (Cape Town, South Africa)
— Museo Laberinto de las Ciencia y las Artes, Planetarium (San Luis Potosi, Mexico)
— National Kinmen Senior High School, Planetarium (Kinmen, Taiwan)
— Portable Planetarium (Buenos Aires, Argentina)

USA Planetariums
— Museum of Science, Charles Hayden Planetarium (Boston, MA)
— Amber Dust Dome, Burning Man (Black Rock City, NV)
— Savannah College of Art and Design (Savannah, GA)

— ESO Fulldome Archive

The Reefs of Belize – Fulldome & VR Short

In January 2016, Allan Adams and Keith Ellenbogen took a group of MIT students scuba diving in Belize as part of a college course on underwater conservation photography. Coral reefs worldwide are deteriorating due to changes in our climate and so it’s important to document both the beauty of our oceans and what’s happening to them. Capturing this moment in time is important for future generations to learn from, be immersed in, and be inspired from.

Keith Ellenbogen is an acclaimed underwater photographer and videographer who focuses on environmental conservation. Ellenbogen documents marine life to showcase its beauty and to elicit an emotional connection to the underwater world. He aims to inspire social change and action toward protecting the marine environment.

Over the past few years, Ellenbogen has collaborated with MIT theoretical physicist Allan Adams who is focuses on the intersection of art, science, and cutting-edge technology. During his residency, they worked with Edgerton Center Associate Director Jim Bales to explore new high-speed photography and other underwater imaging techniques. They also developed an ‘Underwater Conservation Photography’ course taught at MIT and challenged students to push technical and aesthetic boundaries in the pursuit of compelling images of marine conservation.

Domemasters Freely Available

  • The Reefs of Belize, Still Shot 1, and Still Shot 2 are available for planetarium use. Please contact me to obtain a download link.
  • 4k domemaster frames, 30fps, stereo audio
  • 2k MOV or MP4
  • 1k MOV or MP4

Terms: permission to freely screen to the public in planetariums as you see fit. You must screen the short in full and unedited. Not to be used in other shows without permission.

Behind the Scenes

Allan and Keith approached the Museum of Science’s planetarium team because of its expertise in 360° video. It was a perfect meeting of minds and collaboration started immediately to fully test the equipment and plan for the dive. 360° video is very challenging to begin with and it’s even more difficult underwater, so I’ve documented some of the important things we learned.

From the very beginning we were aiming to use the immersive scuba footage for a live lecture in the planetarium. It was only after throwing this event that we realized other planetariums and the VR community might be interested. We should note that this was our first underwater project and we have learned a ton along the way. So some of the shots are a little shaky, lighting isn’t ideal, footage contrasty, and no underwater audio was recorded. Shooting underwater is difficult and you simply cannot improvise with shot techniques in the same way as a 360° shoot on land. But that’s hindsight and so we decided to share the best shots edited into a short film, even if it doesn’t reach the high bar we’ve set for ourselves. Because what’s the use of it keeping it private? We are proud of this project and hope it can inspire others to remember the hidden beauty of the ocean.

360Abyss-RigBut you might be wondering, how do you capture underwater 360° video? It’s possible through the use of 6 GoPro cameras and the specially designed 360Rize 360Abyss scuba rig. Since it’s going underwater, it needs to be watertight and also use domes for the camera porthole due to water refraction.

Prior to the expedition, we needed to test the 360° camera rig underwater and preferably not just in an old bucket. Luckily Keith is good friends with the New England Aquarium and so our first tests were within the Giant Ocean Tank, a gigantic cylindrical aquarium in the center of the aquarium. We were instantly excited about the results. During this time students were practicing shooting still photography within an olympic-size pool.

There are so many worrying factors when pairing scuba diving with photography. You need to keep track of oxygen levels, focus and expose your camera, be careful of sea life, keep the group together, track the boat, and the list goes on. So being prepared mentally, physically, and technically is important.

Glover’s Reef Research Station

Their expedition took them to the Glover’s Reef Research Station in Belize, which is operated by the Wildlife Conservation Society. They worked with the research station staff to carefully dive in the conserved coral reefs and shoot underwater photography. The WCS mission is to save wildlife and wild places worldwide through science, conservation action, education, and inspiring people to value nature. They envision a world where wildlife thrives in healthy lands and seas, valued by societies that embrace and benefit from the diversity and integrity of life on earth.

Glover’s Reef is a partially submerged atoll located off the southern coast of Belize, approximately 45km from the mainland. It forms part of the outermost boundary of the Belize Barrier Reef. It harbors one of the greatest diversity of reef types in the western Caribbean. A large spawning site for the endangered Nassau grouper is located at the northeastern end of the atoll. It has been identified as one of only two viable sites remaining for the species, of nine originally known locations. In 2002, it was declared a special marine reserve, permanently closed to fishing.


A co-production by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the Charles Hayden Planetarium, Museum of Science, Boston

Underwater 360º Photography:
Keith Ellenbogen – MIT CAST Visiting Artist / Assistant Professor Photography SUNY/FIT
Allan Adams, Associate Professor – MIT Dept of Physics

Stitched and edited by Jason Fletcher
Charles Hayden Planetarium, Museum of Science

Special Thanks:
The MIT Edgerton Center and Jim Bales
The Roy Little Fund at MIT
The MIT Alumni Class Fund
Wildlife Conservation Society, Glover’s Reef Research Station, Belize


Conferences & Festivals
— Immersive Film Festival 2017 (Espinho, Portugal)
— Bauhaus Exhibition 2017, Bauhaus University Weimar (Weimar, Germany)
— Further Fest 2017 (Nashville, TN)

International Planetariums
— ESO Supernova Planetarium (Garching, Germany)
— Portable Planetarium (Karnataka, India)
— Portable Planetarium (Huelva, Spain)
— Melbourne Planetarium, Scienceworks (Melbourne, Australia)
— CCAF Observatory & Planetarium (Farra d’Isonzo, Italy)
— Pro Planetario Movel (Curitiba, Brazil)
— Hidden Horizons Dome (Yorkshire, England)
— University of the Free State – Naval Hill Planetarium at the Centre for Earth & Space (Bloemfontein, South Africa)
— Ulsan National Science Museum, Planetarium (Ulsan, South Korea)
— Metaspace Planetarium (Seoul, Korea)
— Space Trek Global (India)
— Havayeda Science Center, Portable Planetarium (Bat Yam, Israel)
— Gyeongsangnamdo Institute of Science Education (Jinseong-myeon, South Korea)
— Atmasfera360 Planetarium (Kiev, Ukraine)
— imseCAVE, University of Hong Kong (Pokfulam, Hong Kong)
— Heavens of Copernicus Planetarium, Centrum Nauki Kopernik (Warszawa, Poland)
— Eugenides Planetarium (Athens, Greece)
— Mark Rutherford School, Portable Planetarium (Bedford, UK)
— Portable Planetarium (Buenos Aires, Argentina)
— Planetário Divino Mestre (Jaboatão dos Guararapes, Brazil)
— Portable Planetarium (Brazil)
— Utazó Planetárium Kft (Budapest, Hungary)
— Mantas do Brasil, Portable Planetarium (Sao Paulo, Brazil)
— Planetário Divino Mestre (Jaboatão dos Guararapes, Brazil)
— Stellarium Erkrath Planetarium, Sternwarte Neanderhöhe Hochdahl (Erkrath, Germany)
— Vedic Science Center – Temple of the Vedic Planetarium (Mayapur, India)
— Schulsternwarte und Planetarium, Sigmund Jähn (Rodewisch, Germany)
— Takween Wonder Ship (Cairo, Egypt)
— Portable Planetarium (Moscow, Russia)
— Portable Planetarium (Buenos Aires, Argentina)

International Full Sphere Theaters
— Space 360, Gwangju National Science Museum (Gwangju, South Korea)

USA Planetariums
— Museum of Science, Charles Hayden Planetarium (Boston, MA)
— Slippery Rock University Planetarium (Slippery Rock, PA)
— Ho Tung Visualization Laboratory & Planetarium (Hamilton, NY)
— Collier County Public Schools, Portable Planetarium (Naples, FL)
— The College of Southern Nevada, Planetarium (Las Vegas, NV)
— Dreyfuss Planetarium, Newark Museum (Newark, NJ)
— Sam Houston State University Planetarium (Huntsville, Texas)
— Wynwood Dome (Miami, FL)
— Manheim Township Planetarium (Lancaster, PA)
— Valdosta State University Planetarium (Valdosta, GA)
— Peterson Planetarium, Emporia State University (Emporia, KS)
— David M. Brown Planetarium (Arlington, VA)
— Fairbanks Museum & Planetarium (St Johnsbury, VT)
— Amber Dust Dome, Burning Man (Black Rock City, NV)
— Santa Fe Children’s Museum, Portable Planetarium (Santa Fe, NM)
— Fredonia Observatory, State University of New York at Fredonia (Fredonia, NY)
— Jim and Linda Lee Planetarium, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University (Prescott, AZ)

— ESO Fulldome Archive
— Dome Club (UK)
— British Fulldome Institute
— Kosmos Scientific de México
— British Fulldome Institute
— Spitz: Scidome Network

Fisheye to Spherical Conversion using After Effects


Lately I’ve been shooting with the Kodak PIXPRO SP360 4k camera for both VR and the planetarium dome. Shooting with dual cameras is great for capturing 360°, but shooting with a single camera is sometimes easier since the footage doesn’t need to be stitched. Also a single camera captures 235° which is a surprisingly huge FOV. Yet it’s necessary to warp the footage from fisheye to spherical so that it can be experienced in VR or Youtube 360.

The ‘Pixpro SP360 4k’ software is actually capable of warping a single camera from fisheye to spherical. But it’s not intuitive (here is a tutorial) and the Kodak software can only export footage to MP4… And seeing as how the raw camera footage is an already heavily compressed MP4, I wasn’t thrilled about this added lossy step. So I figured out a simple technqiue.

If you’re wondering… the terms Spherical, Equirectangular, and LatLong refer to the EXACT same thing.

Tutorial using After Effects without plugins

— This technique is a hack and the warping isn’t ideal for all occasions. Yet it really depends on whether your fisheye lens is equidistant or equisolid angle. Equidistant fisheye lenses can get a near perfect conversion using this technique. But equisolid angle fisheye lenses are unique and therefore this technique cannot provide an accurate conversion. The technique still works for equisolid angle fisheye lenses but parts of the image will look slightly stretched or squashed vertically when viewed in VR or Youtube 360. For instance, the SP360 4k camera has an equisolid angle fisheye lens and yet it’s the camera I used in this tutorial and achieved decent results. On that note, I actually haven’t been able to confirm from any official Kodak specs that the SP360 4k camera indeed uses a equisolid angle fisheye lens, but it seems pretty obvious when comparing renders from this After Effects technique against the ‘Pixpro SP360 4k’ warping software.
— You cannot use gaussian blur, sharpen, or such effects since they would create very obvious seams when viewed in VR or Youtube 360. But you could instead use the Skybox 360 Post FX since they are seamless VR effects.
— If you need to adjust the horizon level, then you’ll need to instead use the RE:Lens plugin or Skybox Studio V2 which provides much better controls and proper conversion tools.

DOWNLOAD: Fisheye FOV Guide
required to complete tutorial


Spherical to Fisheye Conversion

Or if you need to convert spherical to fisheye (so it can be watched in a dome) then the same process can be applied in reverse. But you’ll need to scale up the footage to crop out some of the unwanted FOV and unfortunately it’s a lossy conversion since it’s being uprezzed. Also you cannot change the FOV accurately, it’s just a very basic conversion. Although a perfect conversion can be achieved using a plugin from this list.

Interviews at IMERSA 2016 – Recent Challenges

It’s been fascinating to see IMERSA evolve and mature over the last few years. And since things are moving so fast, I wanted to document the challenges being faced in the immersive community with a series of interviews.

Last year at IMERSA there were nervous murmurings of VR, but this year there is clear excitement. It’s particularly interesting to see fulldome producers realize that they already possess the tools, skills, and ultra high resolution workflows to create polished VR experiences.

IMERSA 2016: View Presentation Recordings

Select presentations available on the IMERSA Vimeo page. Below are my favs:
How Are Museums & Educators Using VR-AR Today / The VR and AR Explosion
Immersion Expanding: New Opportunities for Immersive Experiences
Challenges and Strategies for Producers
The Future of Immersion
Ambisonics Sound Technology
What’s Never Been Seen: Successful Visualizing for Fulldome Storytelling
Shooting 360 Trials and Successes
Proven Methods for a Faster Render
Visual Immersion for Greater Learning Gains in Digital Domes
Let’s Play: Using Games to Entertain and Educate Audiences in the Planetarium
Real Developments in Virtual Reality

— Jenny Carden / Zenka.org
— Greg Downing / xRez Studio
— Troy Whitmer / Sky-Skan
— Jay Heinz / Morehead Planetarium
— David Merrell / Clark Planetarium
— Ken Ackerman / California Academy of Sciences
— Dan Neafus / Denver Museum of Nature and Science
— Orion McCaw / Roundhouse Productions
— Mark Petersen / Loch Ness Productions
— Jay Lamm / Louisiana Art & Science Museum
— Annette Sotheran-Barnett / Sky-Skan

Utilities: Converting Timecode & Frames – Estimate Job Render Time on a Farm

All too often I need to precisely convert between timecode and frames. Or I’ll want a rough time estimate of a render job on the farm. Yet I needed a utility that could allow for intuitive interactivity, GUI creation, and be instantly editable. So I’m using a simple open source solution: Pure Data

Pure Data (aka Pd) is a realtime graphical programming environment which is mainly used in live music performances. But its realtime aspect makes it ideal for my needs. So with some careful planning I applied the math nodes to create tools which automate the conversion process. Basically I’ve created a calculator tailored for animators and filmmakers.

collection of Pd patches

— Requires Pure Data to be installed. (supports: Windows, Mac, Linux)
— It’s easy to use. Just click and drag on the number boxes to input your timecode or frames.

Convert Timecode into Frames /// Convert Frames into Timecode
— Assumes you’re working at 30fps.

Calculate Shot Duration: Input as Timecode or Frames
— Especially useful when adjusting timings between two versions of the animatic and need to figure out the exact amount of time added or removed.
— Assumes you’re working at 30fps.


Estimate Job Render Time on a Farm
— Most useful for estimating the min/max time untill the render is complete. Which is especially important if you’re worried about bottlenecking your farm and need to prioritize for deadlines.

How Does it Work? Lets see the Breakdown
— All the source code is included (within subpatches) and can be edited. So if you’re instead working at 60fps, then you can alter it to your needs.

IMERSA Summit 2016: Presentations We’re Giving

imersa-logo-squareWe are going to be at the upcoming IMERSA Summit and sharing several presentations. With so much that’s been happening lately in the immersive community, it’s bound to be an exciting conference this year. David, Heather, and I will each be on different panels and giving presentations. Hope you can check out what we’ve been working on! More info below.

Panel: Challenges and Strategies for Producers
Thursday, March 17 at 10:45 AM
Update: Watch a video recording of this talk
A team of panelists will discuss questions of importance to producers: What are the biggest obstacles to creating content for immersive media, specifically fulldome? Our panel of producers, with lots of help from the audience, will consider the answers and propose solutions. We want to hear from you! In this lively audience led discussion, we will explore your greatest successes and failures in creating and experiencing immersive media.

— Moderator: David Rabkin (Museum of Science)
— Panelists: Robin Sip (Mirage3D), Annette Sotheran-Barnett (Sky-Skan), Mark Webb (Adler Planetarium), Chris Lawes (Fulldome.pro)

What’s Never Been Seen – Successful Visualizing for Fulldome Storytelling
Thursday, March 17 at 04:15 PM
Update: Watch a video recording of this talk
The script is written. The storytelling is effective. But there are calls for visuals of things that don’t exist yet, or real data representations that have never been visualized. Storytelling for immersive fulldome environments has required producers to take the idea of the “artist concept” to new levels. How do we ensure a successful pipeline between the left-brain expert supplying the input and the right-brain creative implementing the visuals to achieve the desired⎯but most important, accurately told story for the educational goals? Examples of what works… and sometimes what doesn’t.

— Presented by Tom Casey (Home Run Pictures), Jason Fletcher (Museum of Science), Carolyn Sumners (Houston Museum of Natural Science)

Let’s Play: Using Games to Entertain and Educate Audiences in the Planetarium
Saturday, March 19 at 10:15 AM
Update: Watch a video recording of this talk
Experiments with gaming recently done by the Charles Hayden Planetarium at the Museum of Science in Boston, will be presented as well as some plans for the future. We’ll talk about the partnerships we’ve made, the logistics of planning for these events, and some of the technology behind it all. We welcome discussion on what other planetariums have tried, what has worked, and, of course, what hasn’t.

— Presented by Heather Fairweather (Museum of Science)

IMERSA Summit 2016: View Entire Agenda

David Rabkin (Planetarium Director)
Jason Fletcher (Science Visualizer)
Heather Fairweather (Science Visualizer)

Upcoming Special Events in the Planetarium

Image Source: A Slower Speed of Light

Einstein’s Playground

— Thursday, February 11 /// 7:15pm
— Admission $10
— Gerd Kortemeyer, PhD, associate professor of physics at Michigan State University

Have you ever wanted to experience the complete distortion of time and space as we know it? The Charles Hayden Planetarium has partnered with the MIT Game Lab to immerse you in a virtual special relativity playground where you’ll witness the laws of physics in a completely new way. Using the power of video games, we’ll turn Einstein’s most famous theory from an abstract concept into something you can encounter yourself right here at the Museum of Science. Experience the effects of movement, time, and space as you’ve never been able to before!

Tickets on sale beginning January 28 /// (January 26 for Museum members)

Image Source: Keith Ellenbogen

A World Underwater: The Reefs of Belize

— Thursday, March 24 / 7:00pm
— Admission Free
— Keith Ellenbogen, award-winning underwater photographer and 2015-16 CAST Visiting Artist at MIT | Allan Adams, PhD, theoretical physicist, associate professor of physics and member of the Creative Art Council at MIT

Take an underwater journey to Glover’s Reef Research Station in Belize and immerse yourself in coral reefs! With images and cutting-edge immersive video captured during their January 2016 expedition, Keith and Allan will tell the story of the Mesoamerican reef ecosystem, the researchers working hard to conserve it, and the innovative MIT course behind the expedition in which students from across the institute (chemists, civil engineers, historians, physicists, and poets) learned the art, technique, and technology of underwater conservation photography. Under the Planetarium’s fulldome expanse, experience the thrills, challenges, and serendipity of wildlife photography and explore the role of visual culture as a catalyst for positive social change on our tiny blue planet.

Advance registration beginning March 10 /// (March 8 for Museum members)

Image Source: NASA, ESA, CXC and the University of Potsdam, JPL-Caltech, and STScI

Stories Under the Stars

— Wednesday, April 20 / 7:30pm & 9:00pm
— Admission $12
— Ari Daniel, science reporter

Come to the Charles Hayden Planetarium for an evening of live storytelling, radio, and music under the stars. You’ll hear true stories, both personal and inspired by science, that explore the theme of “Light in the Dark,” all unfolding beneath the canopy of our cosmos. Join the search for light during the earliest moments of your life and from the outer reaches of our universe to the inner reaches of the human heart.

Tickets on sale beginning January 28 /// (January 26 for Museum members)
Hosted by science reporter Ari Daniel and co-produced by Ari and the Museum of Science as part of the Cambridge Science Festival.

Image Source: NASA

Space Station

— Thursday, April 21 / 7:30pm
— Admission $10
— Jared Sorensen, game designer

You wake up inside the cramped confines of a cryosleep chamber. You feel weak and dizzy from a prolonged period in cryonic suspension. What will you do next? Join game designer Jared Sorensen and the Charles Hayden Planetarium team as we break new ground in the Planetarium dome. Inspired by the text-parsing games of the ’80s, Space Station allows the entire audience to play a single character trying to survive a dangerous situation… in space! Give commands, explore rooms, examine objects, and try to escape the Space Station, if you can!

Check out the Parsely website for more information about their series of text-based adventure games.

Tickets on sale beginning January 28 /// (January 26 for Museum members)
Part of the Cambridge Science Festival.

Image Source: David Rabkin

Cosmic Loops

— Wednesday, May 18 / 7:15pm
— Admission $15
— Ian Ethan Case, acoustic double-neck guitars, fretless guitar, live looping | Stephanie Case, live sound design | Bertram Lehmann, percussion | Jeff Willet, gongs and percussion

As you soar through nebulas, galaxies, and star systems in the immersive space under the dome of the Charles Hayden Planetarium, live music with simple beginnings builds layer upon layer into an intricate universe of musical loops created by masters of an evocative style. Acoustic double-neck guitarist Ian Ethan fluidly combines a staggering variety of self-invented playing techniques necessitated by his multilayered compositions, further expanded using real-time live looping technology. Indulge in this rare quartet performance in which gongs and exotic percussion instruments from around the world take Ian’s latest compositions into new dimensions, with the Planetarium team’s transcendent visions overhead.

Tickets on sale beginning January 28 /// (January 26 for Museum members)

Using Real Pluto Imagery – From Dream to Discovery: Inside NASA

In producing From Dream to Discovery: Inside NASA we made the exciting but perilous decision to include the New Horizons mission within our story. So we made an early bet that the mission would be a success…

As you well know, New Horizons has given us an amazing close-up look at Pluto. And so we are excited to announce that we have updated the show to include the latest real images of Pluto and Charon!

Blueprint to Blastoff: Free Engineering Materials for the Planetarium or Classroom

Talia-Bio-PhotoWe are offering 3 distinct educational modules, focusing on aspects of spacecraft engineering, to anyone with a planetarium or classroom who would like to use them. They supplement, but are independent of our newest show From Dream to Discovery: Inside NASA and are being shared free of charge.

This article was written by Talia Sepersky. She currently works as a planetarium educator at the Charles Hayden Planetarium, Museum of Science, Boston.

Intro: Putting the “E” back in “STEM”
Module 1: Fixing the Hubble Space Telescope
Module 2: Gravity And Space Travel
Module 3: Design a Mission
The Guides
Teacher Bundles

Intro: Putting the “E” back in “STEM”

When it comes to STEM, planetarium shows tend to be very good at covering the science, technology, and even the math portions, but engineering often gets left out. To help fill this void, in 2013 we, the staff of the Charles Hayden Planetarium at the Museum of Science, Boston, teamed up with NASA to make a planetarium show about spacecraft engineering. The result of this partnership is the show “From Dream to Discovery: Inside NASA,” which explores what it takes to design, test, build, and fly a successful space mission.

As much as we would have liked to, we could not talk in detail about every part of spacecraft engineering during the show. However, through the partnership with NASA, we were able to expand on a few engineering topics from the show in three separate, supplementary education modules. We are extremely pleased to be able to offer these modules to anyone who wants to use them completely free of charge.

The modules themselves have three very different lengths, styles, and topics, and are designed to be presented in different ways. They can be used on a planetarium dome, and a flatscreen version permits their use on a conventional screen as well. Although each goes into depth on topics that are raised in “From Dream to Discovery: Inside NASA,” they all stand on their own and require no knowledge of the show itself. The three modules are: “Fixing the Hubble Space Telescope”, “Gravity and Space Travel”, and “Design a Mission”.

Module 1: Fixing the Hubble Space Telescope

We’ve found that many people in our audiences know that there was something wrong with Hubble when it launched, and that it was eventually fixed. However, few people tend to be aware of the details. The first of our modules, “Fixing the Hubble Space Telescope,” goes into some of those details. It’s the most straightforward of the three modules, consisting of a single video approximately eight minutes long. Large portions of the narration are undertaken by Dr. Jeffrey Hoffman, a former astronaut who flew on the first Hubble servicing mission.

With this module we wanted to focus on a specific case of spacecraft engineering, and Hubble Servicing Mission 1 provides a fantastic real life example. We also wanted to bring in the idea that failures can be instructive.

This module starts by introducing Hubble in space, and then describing how astronomers realized the telescope had a flaw, using some of Hubble’s earliest observations to make the point. It then takes Hubble apart to show the primary mirror and allow Dr. Hoffman to describe exactly what went wrong with making it.

While still looking at a cutaway view of Hubble, Dr. Hoffman goes on to explain the “fix” designed by engineers to repair Hubble, describing the arrangement of mirrors that allowed light entering Hubble’s tube to be refocused before landing on the detection instruments. While he is providing the narration, the visuals show this in action, following a light path all the way through Hubble to the instruments.

The module then moves on to the installation of the new optics on Hubble, with Dr. Hoffman talking about the work on the shuttle mission. This is accompanied by visuals of Hubble and the space shuttle in space, as well as actual video clips from the mission. In one of our favorite parts of this module, Dr. Hoffman shares his story of receiving the phone call that let him know the fix had worked, as well as some thoughts on what it felt like to actually touch Hubble. Some of the visuals for this portion include Hubble images, comparing pictures of the same objects before and after the repair.

The module concludes with the idea that we can learn from failures like Hubble’s. To quote Dr. Hoffman at the module’s end, “The important thing, though, is if you do have a failure, you really need to be able to learn from it. To have a failure that you don’t learn anything from, that’s tragic.”

Module 2: Gravity And Space Travel

It turns out that describing what goes on during a gravity assist can be tricky business. This module introduces some of the mechanics of the momentum transfer that happens during a gravity assist maneuver through Earth-based and space-based examples, as well as describing some of the various ways gravity assists can be used in a space mission.

Since gravity assists can be a tough subject to teach and the depth a presenter goes into will vary widely with different audiences, we designed this module to be as flexible as possible. It is broken up into five segments, each about 1-2 minutes in length (for a total of about 7 minutes of video). Each segment can be presented independently of the others if the presenter only wants to use some but not all. They can also follow after each other, with each segment building on the one before.

We created this format with the idea of using live interpretations in between each of the segments, to reiterate or emphasize the content covered in the previous segment and set up for the next one. However—maximum flexibility!—they can also be strung together to create one unbroken video, depending on the presenter’s preferred style. The core ideas behind momentum transfer and gravity assists are presented in segments 2 and 3, so our recommendation is that at least these two be used.

Segment 1 is relatively straightforward. It starts with the idea that spacecraft travel is often not as easy as pointing the spacecraft at its destination and giving it a push. It introduces the terms “gravity assist” and “momentum transfer” and also defines the word “momentum.”

Segment 2’s purpose is to help the audience gain a better understand of the transfer of momentum using an Earth-based example. To this end, we enlisted the help of a local roller derby team. We wanted to emphasize the idea that gravity assists work not just because the planets are large (i.e. have a lot of gravity) but because they are also moving (i.e. have a lot of momentum).

For this, we had one skater (designated Skater One) hold still and whip her teammates around her as they approach. While her teammates’ paths change, their speed remains more or less the same. We then recreated the same scenario with Skater One also in motion. This time, when she whips her teammates around, their speed increases noticeably even as Skater One’s decreases, due to the momentum transfer between them.

Segment 3 builds on the Earth-based example with a space-based one, specifically the New Horizons gravity assist flyby of Jupiter in February 2007. It starts by looking at what would have happened if New Horizons had gone directly from Earth to Pluto, then looks at the Jupiter flyby. The visuals show an overhead view of New Horizons approaching Jupiter and then visibly increasing its speed as it flies past. This segment uses some actual numbers to get across how much momentum Jupiter has to spare and to emphasize the fact that the planet is, for all practical purposes, not actually affected by losing some. It ends by describing the changes in New Horizons’ speed and flight time as a result of the flyby.

Since Segment 3 presents how a gravity assist can be used to speed a spacecraft up, Segment 4 explores how one can be used to slow a spacecraft down. It shows how the angle at which a spacecraft approaches a planet determines whether the planet transfers momentum to the spacecraft (to speed the spacecraft up) or the spacecraft transfers momentum to the planet (to slow the spacecraft down). It also re-emphasizes the idea that, no matter what the spacecraft does, it will have no practical effect on the planet.

The final segment, Segment 5, brings up the use of multiple gravity assists in a single mission, requiring careful planning many years in advance. To conclude, it loops back to the idea raised in Segment 1 that many space missions are only possible with the use of gravity assists (showing some of the rather convoluted paths these missions took), and that by making clever use of them we have vastly expanded our knowledge of the Solar System.

Module 3: Design a Mission

The “Design a Mission” module is the most interactive of the three and requires a live presentation. In this activity the audience, using information provided to them by the presenter, designs a spacecraft to search for signs of water in the Solar System. They have to choose a destination and then, based on that destination, a power source and whether their spacecraft will be a lander or orbiter. If they design their spacecraft well to suit their destination, the mission will succeed. If they do not, the mission will fail (and how it fails depends on the spacecraft design).

The module itself is made up of thirteen video clips to incorporate all the possible outcomes of the audience’s decisions. In total, the video clips make up about 35 minutes of footage, but a presenter should only need a fraction of that during any given presentation.

The first clip represents the audience’s first decision: will their spacecraft travel to Mars or Saturn in search of evidence of water? The visual for this clip is fairly basic, with images of both of those planets on the screen.

Once they’ve chosen the destination, the second clip represents the audience’s next decision: will the spacecraft be an orbiter or a lander? The presenter may want to provide the audience with some of the benefits and disadvantages of each, or ask the audience to come up with some on their own. The visual is of the two different styles of spacecraft. The “lander” option is based roughly on Cassini with a Huygens-style lander attached to its side.

The third decision is whether to make the spacecraft solar or nuclear-powered, and there are two clips that can potentially be used depending on whether the audience chose an orbiter or a lander. If they chose “lander,” the corresponding clip shows two versions of the lander-style spacecraft, one with solar panels and one without (the nuclear reactor is visible on the bottom edge of the nuclear-powered spacecraft, but is small and not immediately obvious like the solar panels). If they chose “orbiter” the visual is the same, with the orbiter-style spacecraft instead. Again, the presenter may want to make sure the audience knows the benefits and drawbacks of each choice.

Now that they have designed their spacecraft, it’s time to send it to the chosen planet and see if it succeeds. There are eight different clips to represent the eight possible outcomes of the audience’s choices. All start with a liftoff from Earth and a view of the spacecraft moving towards its destination. What happens once it starts moving depends on how well the spacecraft was designed.

The four Mars scenarios (nuclear orbiter, nuclear lander, solar orbiter, and solar lander) all succeed. The two lander scenarios make use of the landing sequence of the Curiosity rover for visuals. The landers will find evidence for water in the form of “blueberries,” frost, and silica deposits. The orbiters will find evidence of water from seeing river channels, hydrogen deposits, and rampart craters.

It’s much harder to succeed at Saturn, and only one scenario, the nuclear-powered orbiter, will lead to success. If the audience chose a solar-powered spacecraft, then as it moves through space towards Saturn the picture will turn to static to represent the spacecraft losing power and shutting down. If they chose a nuclear-powered lander, they will see a rather stunning sequence of their lander entering the atmosphere, heating up, and exploding. If they chose a nuclear-powered orbiter, they will find evidence of water in the geysers on Enceladus and in Saturn’s E Ring.

Since not all of the mission designs succeed, the presenter may wish to talk about failure in spacecraft engineering. To this end, we wanted to show audiences that the professionals also sometimes don’t get it right. The final clip shows images from four real life failed missions from different countries, specifically the Vanguard rocket, the Mars Climate Orbiter, the Phobos-Grunt mission, and the Akatsuki mission. As with the end of the “Fixing Hubble” module, the idea is to emphasize that failures happen, and that the important thing is to learn from them when they do.

The Guides

Between them, these three modules present a lot of information, some of it very specific. To make them as easy as possible for a large variety of institutions to use, we’ve also created planetarian guides to go with each. Our hope is that a presenter with no background in any of these three topics can make an effective presentation on any or all of them using just the material found in the corresponding planetarian guide. In addition to the script for the module, a set of FAQs, and a glossary, each guide contains copious background information as well as some suggestions for presentation.

The “Fixing Hubble” guide includes a layout of Hubble’s optics, even more detail about the flaw and how it was fixed, a brief breakdown of each of NASA’s Hubble servicing missions, and a list of Hubble specifications.

The “Gravity and Space Travel” guide goes into greater detail about the mechanics of gravity assists, how momentum is transferred, and why the spacecraft’s trajectory changes. It also looks at the usefulness of gravity assists on specific missions and provides a list of missions that have made notable uses of gravity assists. In the script section, it provides some guidelines for live interpretation in between the video segments as well instructions on how to recreate the roller skater demo from Segment 2 in house, using either staff or audience members.

The “Design a Mission” guide includes specific descriptions of each of the visuals in the clips and what they are designed to represent. There is an outline for the progression of the module, with some guidelines for discussion, background information on the pros and cons of landers, orbiters, solar power, and nuclear power, and a description of why each mission succeeds or fails. There is also a list of all of the video clips included with this module.

Separate from the planetarian guides, there is a set of educator guides for teachers using the modules in a standard classroom setting. The educator guides are geared more towards using the modules as part of a lesson in a school environment rather than a presentation in a planetarium show, and the information they include is not as detailed as that in the planetarian guides. There are also educator guides for topics not included in the modules, including “Waves and Information Transfer” and “Infrared Astronomy,” which also expand a bit on topics raised in the show “From Dream to Discovery.”


To ensure that many different institutions, classrooms, and other settings can make use of our modules, we are offering them in a variety of formats. The modules are all available in 1K, 2K, and 4K fulldome versions for planetarium domes. There are also flat versions available for use in standard classrooms or for anyone using a flatscreen projector (complete with captions).

4k domemaster downloads are available on the ESO Fulldome Archive.

Teacher Bundles

The Teacher Bundles for “Fixing Hubble” and “Gravity Assist” include the flatscreen captioned versions of the modules as well as the educator guides. The classroom version of “Design a Mission” is web-based, so the Teacher Bundle for that module includes the educator guide and link to the web-based activity. The modules page also includes a Teacher Bundle with the “Waves and Information Transfer” and “Infrared Astronomy” educator guides.

Copyright 2015 International Planetarium Society; article used with permission.

This material is based upon work supported by NASA under grant number NNX12AL19G. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed are those of the Museum of Science, Boston and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).