"Worlds Beyond Earth," the new space show at the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History hits it out of the park, taking viewers on a stunning, visceral journey through space using real and beautiful data.
The show, narrated by Academy Award-winning actress Lupita Nyong'o, begins on Earth. You follow a rocket launch to the moon's surface, where an Apollo lunar lander touches down. From here, you follow along with different spacecraft, like the Huygens probe, from the Cassini-Huygens mission, which landed on Saturn's moon Titan, and NASA's Rosetta spacecraft, which studied the comet 67P.
You can almost feel yourself landing on Titan or flying through Saturn's rings. The show doesn't just take you on a tour of the most incredible worlds in our little corner of the universe, but really creates a visceral, exploratory experience. You're not just seeing beautiful imagery of these worlds and objects – you're traveling to them.
A space show about Earth
But, by the end, "Worlds Beyond Earth" reveals itself to be really about our home planet and our place in the cosmos. "We came to the realization during the production and during the fleshing out of the show that the show's about Earth," the show's curator and chair of the division of physical sciences at the museum, Denton Ebel, said at a press-preview event at the museum on Jan. 14.
The show, which doesn't shy away from discussing climate change, points to the climates of Venus and Mars, which have changed drastically throughout time and draws parallels between other worlds and Earth. This not only highlights just how special Earth is, but also makes it crystal clear just how the actions of humankind can change Earth so that it no longer supports our species.
"By going to, say, Venus, it's kind of a closed system," Natalie Starkey, a geologist who wrote "Worlds Beyond Earth," told Space.com at the event. "We know that it's incredibly hot because it has a lot of carbon dioxide in its atmosphere, but we know that's not caused by humans. So that allows us to learn about our own planet. We're not going to end up as Venus, but we could end up as a planet that couldn't host humans anymore."
"People forget that planet Earth is a planet," Starkey said. "We look at our planet, but in order to learn about ourselves, we need to look outside of ourselves."
Real science, brought to life
"Worlds Beyond Earth" does an incredible job of immersing the audience in, and showcasing the wonders of the solar system – with the help of real-life data from agencies like NASA. "The visuals that you see are all authentic artifacts of our exploration," Trakinski told Space.com in 2019.
"My hope for this show is that it's an emotional experience, as well as an intellectual journey," Trakinski said at the preview event. "Our ability to work with this incredible data, that really heightens that experience. It closes the gap between our communication of the science, and experiencing the science itself."
The event also comes to life with the help of a brand-new projection system. Installed last year in the Hayden Planetarium, the new high-dynamic range (HDR) laser system displays the widest range of color of any planetarium in the world. This not only allows for the colors in the worlds shown to pop, but also allows the depth of the black of space to appear as brilliantly as possible.
This new system "really gives that punch, and it allows us to visualize these things as though we were really there," Carter Emmart, the director of astrovisualization at the museum and the director of "Worlds Beyond Earth," said at the preview event.
"Worlds Beyond Earth" is part of the museum's 150th anniversary. As Ellen V. Futter, the president of the museum, noted at the preview event, this new space show also falls on the 150th anniversary of the birth of Charles Hayden, the namesake of the planetarium, and just after the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 lunar landing.
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