Press Archive

SDSC Researchers and Blue Horizon Transport Viewers to Orion Nebula in Dazzling New Planetarium Show

Rebuilt Hayden Planetarium Dedicated Today; Opens to Public on February

Published 02/09/2000

SDSC Contact: David Hart, SDSC,, 858-534-8314
Hayden Planetarium Contact: AMNH Communications, 212-769-5800,

Astronomically accurate visualizations made possible for the first time by San Diego Supercomputer Center (SDSC) researchers and the Blue Horizon supercomputer at SDSC will transport space theater visitors to the Orion Nebula -- the first destination of the virtual starship departing from the reopened Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

February 16 marked the formal dedication of the Frederick Phineas and Sandra Priest Rose Center for Earth and Space at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. The $210 million, seven-story exhibition and research facility includes the spectacular Hayden Planetarium, completely new from the ground up. The Hayden's 87-foot sphere holds the world's largest virtual reality environment.

"The San Diego Supercomputer Center is proud to have participated in the creation of the world's most advanced space theater," said Sid Karin, director of SDSC and the National Partnership for Advanced Computational Infrastructure (NPACI). "We are pleased that our collaboration with the Hayden Planetarium and its partners has resulted in these exciting, state-of-the-art visualizations of distant reaches of our universe." Karin and Bernard Pailthorpe, SDSC associate director for scientific visualization, attended the dedication ceremony.

When the planetarium's space theater opens to the public on Saturday, February 19, thousands of people will view the premiere of a breathtaking new space epic, "Passport to the Universe" -- the voyage of a starship through our galaxy and beyond. A full-dome flight to and through the Orion Nebula, two dozen light-years across and 1500 light-years away, was an ambitious challenge for SDSC's visualization team.

To meet this challenge, the Digital Galaxy team at SDSC became the first users of Blue Horizon, NPACI's new teraflops IBM RS/6000 SP supercomputer. SDSC's Greg Johnson traveled to IBM's facility in Poughkeepsie, New York, to generate the visualizations on the machine while it was still being tested. The Orion Nebula sequence -- three minutes of high-resolution animation on seven independent projectors -- was produced by the MPIRE Galaxy Renderer software package running on 800 processors for 12 hours, generating more than 28,000 separate images that filled more than 100 gigabytes of digital storage.

"Our science education message for 'Passport to the Universe' led to our desire to recreate the nearest stellar nursery to our solar system," said Neil de Grasse Tyson, Frederick P. Rose Director of the Hayden Planetarium. "It all came together in the cyberspace of SDSC -- without their participation we could have shown some pretty pictures, but they wouldn't have had the impact of the full three-dimensional journey through the volume-rendered nebula."


"The most beautiful, visually complex, and scientifically interesting destinations of the planetarium voyages are nebulas," said Dennis Davidson, project manager and creative director for the planetarium's Digital Galaxy project. "Many nebulas involve a mix of emission, reflection, and absorption effects, all three of which are impossible to simulate realistically in 3-D with traditional polygon-surface computer graphics methods."

Over the past two years, SDSC researchers have worked closely with the planetarium staff to create realistic views of diffuse astronomical objects. "We had to create some unique enhancements to MPIRE's capabilities to handle astronomical data," said David Nadeau, the leader of SDSC's technical team working with the Hayden Planetarium. "The MPIRE Galaxy Renderer and the tools we've developed for scene construction are applicable to many other problems in scientific visualization, and we believe other researchers and graphics artists will want to use them."

To create the Orion visualization, researchers composited a 3-D model of the nebula pieced together by astronomer C.R. O'Dell and graduate student Zheng Wen at Rice University and two-dimensional photographs of the Orion Nebula provided by NASA's Hubble Telescope and the European Space Agency (ESA). Renowned astronomical artist Carter Emmart, the Digital Galaxy project's manager for science visualization, and programmer Erik Wesselak combined spatial models and image data to define the starship,s flight path. Then Nadeau converted the polygonal model to 3-D voxel data and perturbed the unnaturally smooth surfaces of the model into more realistic cloudy structures that can be fuzzy, wispy, or blotchy depending on the degree of disturbance.

"Moving-perspective views of fuzzy objects present a difficult rendering problem," said SDSC's Jon Genetti, one of the authors of MPIRE. "The Hayden visualization experts were skeptical that anyone could make realistic movies of the nebula. We managed to surprise them." MPIRE was developed for distributed-memory massively parallel processor systems, and pre-production renderings were produced for the planetarium project using SDSC's Tera MTA.

"For decades, millions of people -- children and adults -- were introduced to the wonders of the universe by the old Hayden Planetarium," Karin said. "Now it's reborn as an exciting, vital institution for the twenty-first century, and we're delighted to contribute to the success of the new planetarium."

The Hayden Planetarium is part of the Frederick Phineas and Sandra Priest Rose Center for Earth and Space (, part of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City at Central Park West and 79th Street.

Blue Horizon at SDSC is one of the world's top ten supercomputers. It is being used by nation's scientific community for breakthrough research in such areas as climate modeling and weather prediction, mapping and modeling the human brain, modeling ecosystems and the transport of substances through the environment, investigating the biochemical interactions of molecules and cells, and mapping the genomes of living organisms. The machine is available to researchers through the National Partnership for Advanced Computational Infrastructure, funded by the National Science Foundation. For more information on Blue Horizon, see

The San Diego Supercomputer Center is an Organized Research Unit of the University of California, San Diego, and the leading-edge site of the National Partnership for Advanced Computational Infrastructure ( SDSC is funded by the National Science Foundation through NPACI and by other federal agencies, the State and University of California, and private organizations. For additional information about SDSC and NPACI, see or contact David Hart,, 858-534-8314.

A re-rendered image corresponding to a frame from "Passport to the Universe" is available on the Web via -- click on the thumbnail image for a 640x480 JPEG. A publication-quality image (2560x2048 resolution, 12.5 MB TIFF) is available via David Nadeau, Jon Genetti, and Greg Johnson generated this view of the center of the Orion Nebula from the vantage point of a starship for the Hayden Planetarium's Digital Galaxy project, using the Galactic MPIRE visualization package running on Blue Horizon, NPACI's teraflops IBM SP. The image is based on a 3-D model and color-corrected images by C.R. O'Dell and Zheng Wen of Rice University with visual refinements by Hayden's Dennis Davidson, Carter Emmart, and Erik Wesselak. Copyright 2000, San Diego Supercomputer Center. Permission granted to reproduce with credit: Jon Genetti, San Diego Supercomputer Center.