News Release Archive:

News Release 28 of 45

April 9, 2002 12:00 AM (EDT)

News Release Number: STScI-2002-09

Hubble Astronomer Creates Spectacular Galaxy Collision Visualization for the National Air and Space Museum

The full news release story:

Hubble Astronomer Creates Spectacular Galaxy Collision Visualization for the National Air and Space MuseumView this image

Someday our Milky Way Galaxy and the neighboring Andromeda Galaxy may come crashing together in a horrendous collision that will twist and distort their shapes beyond recognition. Of course, to see that, you'll have to wait several billion years. But thanks to a combination of research science, Hollywood computer graphics, and large-scale, "immersive" visualization, visitors to the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC, can witness such an event today.

The Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore, MD, the scientific home of NASA's Hubble Space Telescope, is extending its tradition of stunning imagery by creating a spectacular scientific visualization of two galaxies colliding. This incredibly detailed and immersive, full-dome video sequence will be a highlight of "Infinity Express: A 20-Minute Tour of the Universe," the inaugural show in the National Air and Space Museum's newly renovated Einstein Planetarium, opening Saturday, April 13.

The scientific visualization by Dr. Frank Summers, an astrophysicist in STScI's Office of Public Outreach, depicts a tremendous collision of two spiral galaxies. Because such events take hundreds of millions of years to occur, researchers use supercomputer simulations to study how galaxies are transformed and merge together. Dr. Summers has taken research data provided by Dr. Chris Mihos (Case Western Reserve University) and Dr. Lars Hernquist (Harvard University), and visualized it using the same software that Hollywood uses to produce blockbuster visual effects.

The result brings astrophysics out of the academic setting and presents a scientifically correct, yet compellingly beautiful animation directly to the planetarium audience. "By combining research simulations with Hollywood visualization techniques, we can create animations that are both accurate and artistic, while visually communicating complex astronomical events and ideas to the public," says Dr. Summers.

This contribution to the National Air and Space Museum marks the first release of scientific visualizations for full-dome video planetariums from the Informal Science Education Group at STScI. While Hubble images are a mainstay of planetarium shows, full- dome scientific visualizations represent a new level of astronomy outreach.

"NASA imagery will greatly benefit this emerging planetarium technology, and we can provide high-quality, dynamic content backed by the expertise of Hubble astronomers," says John Stoke, manager of Informal Science Education at STScI. Going forward, his group will distribute this galaxy collision sequence and other full dome scientific visualizations, free of charge, to planetariums and show producers across the country and around the world.

Planetariums have entered a new era of full-dome digital video that immerses the viewer in the dynamic wonders of the universe. The video, projected across the entire hemisphere of a planetarium dome, has up to 23 times the resolution of a standard television and is wrapped 360 degrees around the audience, surrounding them in the experience.

While such systems are generally only in the larger planetariums today, technological advances are bringing the capability for full-dome video to thousands of smaller planetariums in the next couple of years. Worldwide, 100 million people visit planetariums every year.

This work is partially supported by the National Science Foundation through the National Computational Science Alliance and the Partnerships for Advanced Computational Infrastructure. The National Air and Space Museum is owned and operated by the Smithsonian Institution.


Cheryl Gundy
Space Telescope Science Institute, Baltimore, MD
(Phone: 410/338-4707; E-mail:

Frank Summers
Space Telescope Science Institute, Baltimore, MD
(Phone: 410/338-4749; E-mail:

Cheryl Bagni
Smithsonian Institution, National Air and Space Museum, Washington, DC
(Phone: 202/357-1552; E-mail: