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Curiosity is the catalyst, technology the engine, and for more than 80 years, Buhl Planetarium has stood as a launching pad.
From its first home on Pittsburgh’s North Side to its current location at Carnegie Science Center, the planetarium has inspired generations to look up and see both the future and the past, the intimacy and the vastness that can only be found in the cosmos.
“Astronomy and space exploration resonate on such an emotional level,” says Mike Hennessy, seasoned science educator and manager of the planetarium and digital media at the Science Center. “Whether you become a scientist or just a scientifically engaged citizen, there’s nothing quite like the stars to fire people up.”
But in this era of unparalleled access to the internet, images of far-off galaxies that were once the exclusive domain of planetariums are now readily available on any smartphone. How can a planetarium stand out?
Thanks to $1 million gifts from both The Buhl Foundation and Bob and Joan Peirce, the Buhl is keeping those wonder-fueled fires burning by adding some serious sizzle to its 140-seat theater.
“We’ve given the universe an upgrade,” Hennessy says. “We’ve taken the Buhl to the next level. It’s now one of the most technologically advanced planetariums in North America.”
Adds Diana Bucco, president of The Buhl Foundation, “Our roots, as well as our name, are in the Science Center, and we’re proud that the planetarium continues to be a destination to dream big and be inspired. The Science Center is a leader in cutting-edge technology, and these upgrades will make the experiences it offers more accessible and more awe-inspiring.”
In order to reach the highest levels of tech, every one of the 197 panels in the dome’s 50-foot ceiling required personal, hands-on attention. Each was individually molded, cut, painted, and installed to ensure it would meet exact curvature and reflectivity specifications. Collectively, they form the canvas on which the Buhl’s 10 new projectors create a seamless high-resolution True8K image—a remarkable 52 million pixels projected on the dome, or roughly 25 times the pixels of one HDTV. It’s all in service of showcasing the most complete, accurate 3D digital atlas of the universe.
The experience promises to be more—more immersive, more realistic, more awe-inspiring. “Visitors will see a deeper, richer black night sky than ever before, with brighter, finer white stars,” Hennessy says.
“We’ve given the universe an upgrade. We’ve taken the Buhl to the next level. It’s now one of the most technologically advanced planetariums in North America.”
– Mike Hennessy, Buhl Planetarium and Digital Media Manager
But the view is not limited to the here and now. Planetarium guests can travel back in time to see, for example, the sky over Italy the very evenings Galileo noticed four pinpricks of light moving around Jupiter. Realizing they weren’t stars at all, but rather moons, he forever changed our relationship to the universe.
And that relationship continues to evolve—daily. The Buhl is regularly downloading and aggregating the latest data sets from NASA satellites, as well as from ground-based telescopes stationed around the world. It’s precisely this never-ending stream of information that allows visitors to go where they’ve never gone before.
For select shows, Hennessy says, “We can lift off from Earth’s surface and ‘live fly’ over the canyons and mountains of Mars, the rings of Saturn, take journeys exploring the colorful geology and atmospheres of other worlds or the ice plains of Pluto, all using real NASA data. It’s all a completely new experience for visitors.”
For the most part, these adventures are piloted by a staff presenter, but in some instances audience members can now navigate the ship by way of an Xbox controller, and vote on specific destinations via handheld, wireless devices, all made possible by the installation of Evans & Sutherland Digistar, the world’s leading digital planetarium system.
Also for the first time, thanks to a $32,000 grant from the Allegheny Regional Asset District (RAD), handheld tactile domes are available for visually impaired visitors. These star globes feature dotted outlines, with thicker dots indicating the North Star and the brighter stars of the Big Dipper, Orion, and other northern hemisphere constellations. And for hearing- impaired visitors, the planetarium now provides assistive listening devices, as well as captioning glasses that convert speech to scrolling text.
Fly Me to the Moon
All the while, significant funding from NASA and the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) is fueling the Buhl’s plans to develop new planetarium shows that will take advantage of all the new bells, whistles, and top-notch tech. Although not yet off the ground, Cosmic Cookbook, for one, will give planetariums the option of using shows that combine live theater and science education in its entirety, or use only parts of the show and then add their own context—“seasoning it to taste,” as Hennessy says.
But not every journey is about traveling beyond the outer reaches of the universe. Mission to Planet Earth, one of the trio of Cosmic Cookbook shows in development by the Buhl team, will use the same advanced technology and NASA-driven data to explore what’s happening in this world.
“This show will focus on our home planet and highlight the unsung work of NASA’s Earth science missions,” Hennessy says. “It will offer a global perspective—zooming in on coral reefs, Pennsylvania forests, and glaciers—and help us understand how the information gathered from space guides our conservation efforts here on Earth.
“Our goal is to connect environmental research to people’s lives,” he continues. “Science is a tool that we as human beings can use to make life better for us and the world around us.”
Science, and the contributions of Pittsburghers, is celebrated in Fly Me to the Moon, a Buhl-produced show created to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1969 moon landing. History tells the story of the three Apollo 11 astronauts, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins, but the locals connected to the mission have often been left behind.
Take, for example, the late Alex Valentine, who was born in Braddock. His job as a lunar cartographer was to help pick the best parking spot on the Sea of Tranquility for the Eagle module. (If only he could have saved it with a chair.) And there was Elayne Arrington. She was the first African American woman to earn an engineering degree from the University of Pittsburgh, who then went on to become the first woman aerospace engineer to work in the foreign technology division of Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. Her job was to keep tabs on Russia.
Pittsburghers are still part of space, and for many their journey was initially ignited by a field trip to the Buhl. As most locals will tell you, boarding a yellow school bus bound for the planetarium was not only a rite of passage but also sure to be one of the best outings of the year, if not an entire lifetime.
Stay Curious, Pittsburghers
So, it’s not too surprising that some of the students who once upon a time settled into the theater’s comfy chairs have gone on to forge their own interstellar path.
Since 1991, Emsworth native Mike Fincke’s job title has been astronaut. And although NASA doesn’t yet offer a frequent flier program, Fincke would no doubt be eligible for some perks, having logged nearly 382 days in orbit during his three space missions.
With his feet still firmly planted on the ground, Anthony Vareha has taken a different route to NASA. After graduating from Gateway High School in 2002 and earning degrees in engineering physics and systems engineering, he landed a flight controller job at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. Recently, he was promoted to flight controller—the person in charge of the ground team supporting the operations and ever-changing crew onboard the International Space Station.
“There’s always been something special about gathering under this cosmic cathedral, this grand planetarium dome, and sharing the stars, sharing that joy and wonder.”
– Mike Hennessy, Buhl Planetarium and Digital Media Manager
For the past 10-plus years, Vareha has been working with real-time data from real people living in a real spaceship. But he still remembers his trips to the Buhl with the same enthusiasm he must have felt as a kid growing up in Monroeville.
“There was this one show where they flew us out to the stars and then flew us back over Pittsburgh, an early ’90s CGI [computer-generated imagery] version of Pittsburgh,” he recalls. “It was amazing!
“I was always a space geek, and now I’m one of the lucky ones—I get to spend my time thinking about the world outside the world,” he adds. “Some of that began at the Buhl. No doubt.”
The planetarium doesn’t exist in a vacuum. In fact, some 90,000 people a year make the star trek. And, according to Hennessy, it’s that sense of community that can propel someone to imagine a future full of possibilities.
“There’s always been something special about gathering under this cosmic cathedral, this grand planetarium dome, and sharing the stars, sharing that joy and wonder,” he says.
Still, to turn those possibilities into realities requires a certain leap of faith. Vareha’s advice: “Stay curious, keep learning, and never stop asking good questions.”
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