by Ken Brown

It’s the ultimate technology upgrade.

After two years of construction, Chicago’s Adler Planetarium reopens today, after replacing its 40-year-old star projector with a supercomputer that drives 20 military-grade projectors.

The Adler Planetarium Building

The new system at the nation’s first planetarium projects a seamless image across a 190-degree dome at a resolution that’s eight-times sharper than your local digital cinema. It’s not only the ultimate man-cave, it’s the world’s highest-resolution digital dome theater – powered, in part, by 42 NVIDIA Quadro GPUs.

We were able to preview the show this week, and go behind the scenes with astronomers and designers to see the result of their $14 million effort. This brief video includes their perspectives on the project and a few scenes from the show.

“Our goal was to create an experience that was the closest you could get to outer space travel,” said Paul H. Knappenberger Jr., the Adler’s president. “We want visitors to feel like they are really traveling through the universe to see galaxies collide and witness stars and planets being born.”

The Adler Planetarium’s Sky Theater

The centerpiece of the revamped facility is the Grainger Sky Theater, which boasts the world’s largest seamless digital image. The imagery extends all the way to the floor of the 71-foot dome – delivering a truly immersive experience that makes you feel like you’ve been shot into deep space. To paint its dazzling display, the Sky Theater uses Rockwell Collins projectors designed for the commercial airline market and military training, including mission rehearsal using night vision devices. With their custom-ground lenses that match the dome’s geometry and insanely high 1,000,000:1 contrast ratio (that’s 10-times higher than on a good HDTV), the projectors crank out an 8k x 8k image with resolution that’s so sharp it appears to be nearly 3D.

It takes exceptional processing power to crank out a 64 megapixel image 30 times a second. Doug Roberts, Adler’s chief technology officer, showed us the room where two Quadro-powered server clusters play the Grainger’s Deep Space Adventure show. The system, built by Global Immersion, is so powerful it can be used for interactive “galaxy tours” in real-time, at a refresh rate of 60 frames a second.

But the technology story at the Adler extends well beyond the planetarium itself. To create such exquisitely detailed scenes, astronomers started with digital images captured by spacecraft and space-based telescopes. The team then enlisted the help of two U.S. supercomputing centers to process the calculations required to depict massive galactic events like supernovas.

Roberts said it took more than three weeks to calculate just one two-minute scene showing the formation of a large-scale structure of the universe. The NASA Ames Research Center, in Silicon Valley, was used to calculate the movement of a one-billion particle data set 7,200 times, producing a whopping 400 terabytes of data.

If you’d like to learn more, visit the Adler Planetarium on the waterfront in downtown Chicago, and let us know if the upgrade was worth it.

Check out the video and photo gallery below.