Edmonton’s Telus World of Science in Alberta, Canada, is about to enter the next phase of its Aurora Project – the year-long construction of a new planetarium theatre with higher screen resolution than any other planetarium in the world.
The renamed Zeidler Dome Theatre – formerly the Margaret Zeidler Star Theatre – includes a projector and screens capable of 10K resolution, more than double that currently offered by IMAX cinemas and more than the ultra-HD standard of 8K.
“With this new 10K resolution video projection system, the stars that we can project, the images will be incredibly sharp, highly detailed, and it will make you feel like you’re right there,” says Frank Florian, director of planetarium and space sciences at Telus World of Science.
We asked Florian to tell us more about the exciting project.
Can you describe what the new planetarium will be like?
It will be a re-visioning of the planetarium, taking it into the 21st century. While the old star projector was a cool projector and created nice-looking star fields, this new planetarium will showcase a state-of-the-art digital dome planetarium. It’s got a Star Trek holodeck feel.
The audience will be transported through the use of high-resolution immersive visuals and a surround soundscape to any place possible. We can showcase the aurora borealis as it would have appeared the night before, or take the audience to deepest parts of the ocean or to the very distant places in our universe. It’s the next best thing to being there and seeing it firsthand.
The heart of the projection system is Sky-Skan software, DigitalSky and Dark Matter, which drives the visuals on the hemispherical screen. The software is capable of displaying all astronomical objects to a high degree of realism, all in real time, so we can fly visitors over the surface of our Earth, through our solar system, into our Milky Way galaxy and beyond.
In addition to the astronomical tools, the software is capable of showing full-dome videos, like the current Canada 150 show Horizon, or pre-rendered shows by global producers.
How much is it costing?
It’s around the CA$4m mark. The planetarium component – equipment, new dome, infrastructure work, etc – comes to about that much out of the CA$7m allocated for the planetarium and space gallery renewal.
Is it a brand new or upgrade facility?
It will be a completely refurbished and upgraded theatre. The theatre will undergo a complete facelift from the look and feel of the current planetarium. It will have a new projection screen – Astro-Tec Manufacturing’s Ulteria, one of the best on the market – as well as new chairs, carpets, a new entrance and interactive experience, new audio system, new 10K video projection system, new theatre lighting, new software from Sky-Skan, called Dark Matter, and a new central stage. The space will look completely different.
How many seats will it have?
Around 220 to 250.
What size is the dome and who is providing the screens?
Astro-Tec Manufacturing is providing the new screen for their existing dome structure. It will remain a 23-metre-diameter dome, but the panels will be the new Ulteria dome panels that are placed flush to each other, providing a superior projection surface.
Who is supplying the media software/hardware?
Sky-Skan is providing the audio and video equipment. We’ll be using 12 Sony 4K VPL-GTZ270 laser phosphor projectors to give us an overall resolution on the dome of 4K. Sky-Skan’s Digital Sky and Dark Matter software will run all the visuals on the dome using very high-end computers to run the imagery. Their software is capable of displaying up to 12K resolution.
What makes it different from other planetariums?
Every planetarium in the world is a little different from each other. Some theatres have unidirectional raked seating with a tilted dome while others are omnidirectional, circular seating, with a flat dome like ours. In Canada, our theatre will remain the largest flat dome theatre with a 10K projected image. Other planetariums in Canada are primarily 4K resolution across the dome, in either tilted or flat dome configuration. The high-resolution imagery is one of the major differences that we’ll have over other planetariums – but that has the potential to change rather quickly.
It’s a first for 10K resolution in a planetarium – what are the challenges involved with that?
There’s a lot to consider. The Sky-Skan software is capable of displaying up to 12K resolution at its highest. With our 10K projector configuration, this will give us very nice star fields for the live astronomy shows, as we are not purchasing an expensive optical-mechanical star projector to illustrate the night sky. So this will give us the best digital star field available at this time. The highest resolution for a pre-recorded planetarium show is 8K and the production of an 8K show or a future 10K show requires a lot of computer rendering time from the developers of the show. So the 8K or higher resolution shows are more expensive and time consuming to produce, but the end result is spectacular.
As for playback, all 12 projectors have to be edge blended together to give a seamless image on the dome. This is a bit tricky and is something that Sky-Skan will put in extra effort to do properly, especially with a 10K projection system. With a multiple projection system like this, there is always the chance that a projector could fail on us, so it will be important to have a spare on hand to replace a faulty projector. We don’t want to lose any shows due to a projector or computer failure.
How many visitors will the planetarium have each year?
It’s anticipated that our numbers will increase for this new experience. As our theatre will be part of our general admission, we anticipate the new theatre will lead to greater visitation to our entire facility with almost all visitors attending at least one planetarium show. So our planetarium could see upwards of 400,000 people see a show in a year.
What special programming will you offer?
In addition to the star/night sky shows and pre-recorded full-dome shows, we’re looking at some special programming. This would include special lectures on science topics using the projection technology to show the audience the latest scientific data on a particular topic. We’re planning live music performances in the theatre using the full-dome video projection system and laser light show system to add a backdrop of stunning visuals. There will be live theatre performances, again using the full-dome video projection system to create the sets for the performance and doing theatre in the round. Weddings can take place under the dome, with visuals of any kind transporting the audience to the surface of the moon or the inside of a cathedral. We’re planning sleepover programmes, where participants sleep under the stars in the theatre, and laser light shows, which will be performed to old classics or today’s new music.
What is the function of the SPACE gallery and how does it relate to the planetarium?
The SPACE gallery offers a way for visitors to explore astronomy and the related space sciences using a more hands-on approach than is possible inside the planetarium. It will offer actual artefacts like meteorites, a moon rock, spacecraft components, telescopes and a terrella to tell the story of the human quest to understand our place in the Universe. As such, the gallery plays a complementary role to the programming in the planetarium and our public observatory.
How does the planetarium experience relate/connect to the wider aims of the science centre?
The planetarium was an integral part to the Edmonton Space Sciences Centre when it opened in 1984 and a successor to Canada’s first planetarium, the Queen Elizabeth Planetarium, which opened here in Coronation Park in 1960.
The Zeidler Dome Theatre planetarium foremost continues the role of offering the citizens of Edmonton and Canada – and visitors to Edmonton and Canada – the opportunity to explore astronomy and the space sciences in a unique, cutting-edge setting. Secondly, it tackles and showcases other sciences using science visualisations that can immerse an audience in this setting. This planetarium will provide a new way of presenting developments in the sciences and will complement the many other areas of science and technology that are explored throughout our facility.