How do you see and understand that of which you are only an infinitesimal part?
For centuries, astronomers have been grappling with this challenge as they try and visualize our home galaxy. Luckily for viewers of the Museum’s Hayden Planetarium Space Shows, in the past few decades new instruments that capture and display galactic images with unprecedented detail, combined with new modeling approaches have made it possible to see and understand the Milky Way Galaxy as never before.
Each of the five Space Shows produced at the Museum’s Hayden Planetarium since the opening of the Rose Center for Earth and Space in 2000 has showcased the Milky Way Galaxy with ever-greater precision, thanks to close collaboration between scientists and visualizers — artists who interpret the latest data to produce accurate and detailed visualizations for the Hayden Planetarium dome.
As the Museum approaches the opening of Dark Universe on November 2, 2013, we’ve traced the evolution of the Milky Way over the past five Space Shows.
The first visualization of the Milky Way, which was featured in Passport to the Universe (2000), was developed in collaboration with the National Center for Supercomputer Applications (NCSA), using the Digital Universe, a scientifically accurate 3D atlas of the known universe maintained at the Museum’s Hayden Planetarium. A version of this comprehensive cosmic map is also available to download from the Museum’s website here.
Photorealism was the goal in creating this second visualization of the galaxy for The Search for Life: Are We Alone? (2002), but how to take a picture of the Milky Way when we’re deep inside? The solution: find a stand-in. This visualization, also developed in collaboration with the NCSA, used a 3D model of the galaxy M83, which, like our home galaxy, is composed of a barred spiral with a few branching arms.
For the next Space Show, Cosmic Collisions (2006), the team drew on images of external galaxies from two different space telescopes: the Hubble Space Telescope and the Spitzer Infrared Space Telescope. The structure of the Milky Way galaxy was based on a recently released Hubble Heritage Image of another spiral galaxy, M51, some 35 million light years away. The image was taken with the telescope’s newest camera, the Advanced Camera for Surveys, producing a higher-than-ever resolution. The light-occluding dust lanes were imaged by the Spitzer Space Telescope in infrared light and were later added to this Space Show’s Milky Way by the visualization team.
The current Space Show, Journey to the Stars (2009), uses the same visualization of the Milky Way as Cosmic Collisions. However, an upgrade to the Hayden Planetarium projection system in 2011 allowed audiences to see the galaxy in extraordinary new detail. The new projectors have a contrast ratio of 500,000: 1, compared to 2,000:1 in most movie theaters, and show "true black" in addition to thousands of known stars that were too faint to display in the old system. The image below is the Milky Way as it appears over New York City, shown using the new projection system on one side (left of the red line) and the previous system on the other side (right of the red line).
The final version, which will appear in Dark Universe, uses a three-dimensional simulation constrained to agree with the latest observations in radio, infrared, and optical wavelengths of the structure of our own galaxy. This allows scientists to examine not just the structure, but also the history of the Milky Way. The supercomputer simulation was performed at the National Astrophysical Observatory of Japan. Visualizers and scientists at the Museum worked together to show the full detail contained in the simulation in the dome
Visit amnh.org/dark-universe for more information and to buy tickets to the show.