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Science Museum of Va. pulls wraps off 'The Dome'
New Dome

Science Museum of Va. pulls wraps off 'The Dome'

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Visitors to the Science Museum of Virginia will get a first look today at a state-of-the-art screen inside The Dome, a major piece of the museum’s $60 million capital campaign.

The NanoSeam screen is nearly a quarter-acre in size and allows for a clearer image of some of the farthest reaches of the galaxy.

“With astronomy, you’ve got to have the technology to do it right. When you can show people the majesty and the beauty and the scale … it will have a much different impact on the guests,” said Richard C. Conti, CEO of the museum.

The $2.2 million domed screen, which replaces a system installed in 1983 and updated in the 1990s, is made up of 29 million pixels — picture elements — and is capable of high definition 10 times more powerful than what the average person gets on a HDTV at home, the museum said.

Justin Bartel, immersive experience manager at the museum, said the system allows him to virtually take visitors to nearby planets and galaxies, then out to the end of the knowable universe. It also allows the museum to show what objects in space look like 1 million years back or forward in time.

“There are a lot of things in astronomy that you can’t see from above or see one time” that people want to get a better look at, he said.

“We can do that with a click of a button now. Phases of the moon are easy to do, how the planets move are easy to do … and when we fly away from Earth, we can see how the stars are arranged in 3-D space. It’s really driving home that it’s a 3-D universe, there’s stuff all around us.”

The screen takes up the entire top of the dome and gives viewers a 360-degree picture. The old system would fill about two-thirds of the screen because of the way most of the films the museum showed were formatted.

With the new system, the Science Museum can use digital films that are less expensive and formatted to fit the entire screen; older films transferred to digital will still not fit the whole screen.

Conti said the new system has five digital projectors — each attached to eight graphics computers — that are aligned to create the full-dome view.

A presentation itself is controlled by a small bank of computers near one of the entrances.

In addition to the domed screen and its projectors, the system allows the museum to store a vast amount of data. That means materials can be downloaded overnight rather than spending $25,000, as it did before, on unwieldy films.

All of that makes for a better experience for the viewer and a better opportunity for the museum to educate visitors, Conti said.

The domed screen is part of the Science Museum’s $60 million fundraising campaign, which is aimed at rebranding the state institution as the “marketing agency for science.” More than half of that money — $36 million from public and private sources — is already in hand.

The first permanent exhibit opened in June, and two more projects are underway — “Speed,” which explores basic physics, communications, NASCAR and special relativity; and The Dewey Gottwald Center, a 17,000-square-foot community event and exhibition center. “Speed” is set to open next year, and The Dewey Gottwald Center is set for 2016.

The domed screen, though, is one of the first changes the museum considered when it began looking at how to remake itself, Conti said.

He said the old technology was limiting and made it difficult to go deeply into subjects that interest visitors.

“Our job is to make people look at the world differently; to take science and make it relative to you and to show how it’s part of your life.”

The Dome opens to the public today with “Wildest Weather in the Solar System” and “Great White Shark.”

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