The Einstein Planetarium at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum’s flagship building on the National Mall in Washington will feature the exciting new all-digital space show “Cosmic Collisions,” narrated by award-winning actor, director and producer Robert Redford, beginning Wednesday, Nov. 1.
Featuring stunning images from space and breathtaking visualizations based on cutting-edge scientific data—many seen for the first time—the dazzling program reveals the explosive encounters that shaped the solar system, changed the course of life on Earth and continue to transform the galaxy and universe.
The immersive theater experience was created by the American Museum of Natural History in New York, NASA and more than 25 leading scientists from the United States and abroad. “Cosmic Collisions” launches visitors on an awe-inspiring trip through space and time—well beyond the calm face of the night sky—to explore the hypersonic impacts that drive the continuing evolution of the universe.
“‘Cosmic Collisions’ shows, in a very artistic way, that even though the universe is very large, things do collide, and, given enough time, collisions become the dominant means of building worlds,” said National Air and Space Museum senior space history curator David DeVorkin.
The show focuses on the full range of collisions from catastrophic planetary impacts to the continual explosions that occur in the center of the sun.
“Unique observations from space provide a revolutionary view of a dynamic cosmos,” said Richard Fisher, director of NASA’s Heliophysics Division. “From sun to Earth and moon and to the stars and galaxies beyond, the accurate visualizations in ‘Cosmic Collisions’ show these spectacles unfold in a concrete way that viewers have never before experienced.”
“Cosmic Collisions” was written by Stephanie Abrams, award-winning writer and director of documentaries for PBS and USA Networks, and Emmy award winner Louise A. Gikow, with music by renowned Brazilian pianist and composer Marcelo Zarvos and award-winning composer Robert Miller.
The program was developed by the American Museum of Natural History in New York, in collaboration with the Denver Museum of Nature and Science; GOTO Inc. in Tokyo; and the Shanghai Science and Technology Museum in China.
Additional support was provided by the Heliophysics Division of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate and CIT.
The museum’s Mall building is located at Sixth Street and Independence Avenue S.W. It is open daily 10 a.m. until 5:30 p.m. (Closed Dec. 25.) Admission is free.
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The Foundation of “Cosmic Collisions”
“Cosmic Collisions” presents a view of the cosmos that is radically different from the everyday experience watching the peaceful night sky. Collisions are commonplace occurrences in space and are currently understood by scientists as a key mechanism in the evolution of the universe. They are the spectacular and inevitable result of gravity pulling together objects, such as planets, stars, and galaxies, which are in constant motion through space. For the first time, “Cosmic Collisions” recreates tremendous encounters that are usually invisible, either because they unfold throughout incredibly vast expanses of time and space, spanning billions of years and trillions of miles (as in the clash of galaxies), or because they occur almost instantaneously on a subatomic scale (as in the collision of protons in the heart of the sun).
Scene by Scene
“Cosmic Collisions” starts quietly: a deceptively peaceful night sky with stars covers the dome of the Einstein Planetarium, but viewers soon encounter a comet approaching Earth. The comet misses, but bits of rock from the comet’s tail, called meteoroids, burn up spectacularly and harmlessly in the Earth’s atmosphere. The audience is then transported back in time to witness a wandering planet-sized object explosively crashing into the young Earth about 4.5 billion years ago. Soon, in the aftermath of the collision, the swirling mass of molten debris that circles Earth starts to coalesce while narrator Robert Redford explains the birth of Earth’s moon, which took place over a single month, according to the latest thinking and simulations. This major milestone in Earth’s history was responsible for the tilt of Earth’s axis and therefore, the four seasons. The moon’s gravitational pull causes the ebb and flow of the ocean’s tides. Redford informs the audience that “other collisions affect us each and every day.” Protons colliding in the process of nuclear fusion generate the sun’s tremendous energy. This energy, in the form of light, creates the ideal conditions for life to flourish on Earth. Viewers witness in remarkable detail the turbulent face of the Sun in spectacular images captured by NASA satellites, with huge fiery storms that spew out mountains of ionized particles that hurtle toward Earth at more than a million miles an hour. The blustery streams of charged particles from the Sun—the solar wind—could endanger all life on Earth by sweeping away large portions of our upper atmosphere, but Earth’s magnetic field repels the solar particles like a protective cocoon.
As charged particles strike the Earth’s magnetic field, some of these particles make it through to the upper atmosphere, producing the stunning glow of the aurora borealis, the so-called “northern lights,” which the audience views from a vantage point high in outer space. For the first time, much of NASA’s latest research on the complex effects of solar flares and coronal mass ejections on the Earth will be dramatically visualized on a dome for the public.“Cosmic Collisions” takes visitors back in time through the recreation of a catastrophic event that changed the course of life on Earth. Using data from Los Alamos National Laboratory, viewers experience the most immersive simulation ever produced by an enormous meteorite impact that heated the Earth’s atmosphere in a flaming shroud and hastened the end of the Age of Dinosaurs 65 million years ago. The ensuing destruction and darkness, combined with the subsequent volcanic eruptions and changing sea levels, obliterated almost three-quarters of all life on Earth. But the impact also cleared the way for mammals like humans to thrive.
But can such a catastrophic event like this happen again? The show visualizes a possible future scenario that has frequently been the subject of news stories, novels, and blockbuster movies—an apocalyptic impact of Earth with a large asteroid. There’s less than a one-in-a-million chance in any given year that an asteroid more than one kilometer in diameter will hit Earth. The program explores how such a collision might be averted, pointing out that, contrary to popular wisdom, the best option may not be blowing up the asteroid because that could produce dangerous fragments; the best approach may be in pulling the asteroid safely out of the path of destruction using the relatively small gravitational pull of a spacecraft. In a dramatic, tension-filled scene, a “doomsday” asteroid barely misses Earth after being successfully tugged off course by the gravity of a spacecraft flying alongside.
The show takes the audience outside Earth’s orbit, on a soaring journey to the outskirts of the Milky Way to witness the densely packed stars in a distant globular cluster. Unlike most of space where there are great distances between objects, the stars in these clusters are crammed together, making collisions more likely. Viewers witness how gravity brings two small stars smashing together to form a larger, rejuvenated star—a rare cosmic event that even in the heart of a globular cluster occurs only once every hundred thousand years.
Next, shifting billions of years into the future, the Space show predicts an encounter of staggering proportions as two galaxies collide. The Milky Way galaxy runs headlong into its closest neighbor, the Andromeda spiral galaxy, a cosmic merging that produces a new giant elliptical galaxy. As Redford narrates, “Stars and planets in these galaxies won’t actually collide. They’re much too far apart. Scientists think they’ll simply slide past one another.” Using the latest astrophysical research to create the breathtaking 3-D visualizations of an intergalactic ballet, the Milky Way and Andromeda galaxies swirl and stretch away from each other before coming back together again. From this single simulated sequence—where each second indicates the passage of 40 million years—viewers see how cosmic collisions have shaped the universe’s myriad galaxies and how the familiar Milky Way was formed by collisions among many smaller galaxies during vast expanses of time.
“Cosmic Collisions” concludes by speculating on humanity’s future role in the universe, not as passive voyagers on a brief journey, but as active explorers driven by boundless curiosity to understand the ever-changing nature of the cosmos.
Partners and Technology
A complex merger of cutting-edge astrophysics research and state-of-the-art supercomputing expertise made it possible for “Cosmic Collisions” to transport audiences through time and space to view the evolving universe. To perform the enormously complex calculations and render the scenes of interstellar collisions, the space show’s production team relied on an array of graphic workstations, a Linux-based rendering cluster with 100 processors to create the graphic images and used a multichannel digital dailies system donated by the NVIDIA Corporation to preview the high-resolution graphic images on the planetarium dome. The show’s production team also made extensive use of a virtual map of billions of stars and galaxies called the Digital Universe, created at the American Museum of Natural History with support from NASA. It began as the most comprehensive scientifically accurate 3-D map of the Milky Way galaxy, and has grown to become a virtual universe, commensurate with available data containing millions of objects in the near and distant universe.
One of Hollywood’s most popular box office stars, Robert Redford has garnered innumerable awards, including a recent honor from the Kennedy Center, which recognizes his contributions to American culture. Redford founded the nonprofit Sundance Institute in 1981 and is an active promoter and supporter of independent filmmakers in the United States. The Sundance Film Festival has become one of the world’s finest venues for new independent films.
“Cosmic Collisions” was written by Stephanie Abrams, award-winning writer and director of documentaries for PBS and the SciFi Channel, and Emmy award winner Louise A. Gikow.
Abrams began her career at ABC News in New York, working with the late renowned science editor Jules Bergman. Her career has spanned television venues, including several award-winning documentaries, series, and one-hour television specials. Gikow began her career as editorial assistant and became senior copy editor at National Lampoon magazine. She is an Emmy award-winning author/composer of more than 150 scripts, books, and songs for kids and adults.
Brazilian pianist and composer Marcelo Zarvos has written music for film, television, dance, theater and the concert stage. Among his film scores are “The Door in the Floor,” “Strangers with Candy, “Kissing Jessica Stein, and the Focus Features release “Hollywoodland” starring Adrian Brody and Ben Affleck. Robert Miller’s works have been performed by orchestras nationwide, and he is considered to be in the top echelon of composers working in television and commercials. His recent film projects include the feature documentary “Why We Fight,” which won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival in 2005; “Vuilo”; “Red Doors”; and “Runaway.” Miller’s music was produced by Emmy award-winning composer Jon Silbermann, founder of JSM Music.
The production team for “Cosmic Collisions” includes science visualizers, digital artists, producers, engineers, sound designers, educators and more. The space show’s executive producer is Anthony Braun, whose group was headed by visualization director Carter Emmart and producer Christopher Scollard. The director of Rose Center Engineering is Benjy Bernhardt.
NASA Heliophysics Division
NASA’s goal for future research and exploration within its heliophysics division is to observe and understand the complex phenomena associated with space weather by studying the Sun, the heliosphere and planetary environments as a single, interconnected system. To achieve this, NASA will open the frontier to space weather prediction by studying and understanding the fundamental physical processes of the space environment—from the sun to Earth to other planets and beyond to the interstellar medium. At the same time, the heliophysics division seeks to understand how society, technology, and our planet’s habitability are affected by solar variability and its interactions with planetary magnetic fields and atmospheres. Understanding this will represent not only a grand intellectual accomplishment—it also will provide knowledge and predictive capabilities essential to future human and robotic exploration of space and will serve key societal objectives in important ways.