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NCSA visualizations featured at Chicago’s Adler Planetarium

Data-driven visualizations created by NCSA’s Advanced Visualization Laboratory (AVL) will be featured in the Adler Planetarium’s new live show “Destination Solar System.” Opening May 16, the show takes visitors on a tour “from sizzling solar flares on the Sun to liquid methane lakes on Saturn’s moon.”

“We didn’t just want to visit the planets, we wanted to show how dynamic the solar system is and how it has evolved over time,” said Mark Subbarao, director of the Adler’s Space Visualization Lab and co-producer of the show. “Partnering with AVL allowed us to transport our visitors 4.5 billion years in the past to see the solar system form and to the surface of the sun to witness its dramatic activity. All of these are visualizations of state-of-the-art computational simulations.”

NCSA’s AVL team created two ultra-high resolution visualizations totaling about four minutes for the digital fulldome show. The first is a flight close to the surface of the Sun that depicts the evolution of sunspots, rendered from a simulation by researchers Matthias Rempel (National Center for Atmospheric Research) and M.C.M. Cheung (Lockheed Martin Solar and Astrophysics Lab). AVL combined observed imagery of prominences in the solar corona as seen by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory with data provided by Goddard Space Flight Center.

The second visualization takes the audience on a seamless virtual journey through a nebula and into a developing protoplanetary disc, the ring of gas and dust swirling around a star from which planets will form. This visualization is based on a molecular cloud simulation by astrophysicists Alexei Kritsuk and Michael Norman (University of California, San Diego) and a protoplanetary disc simulation by Aaron Boley (University of Florida). AVL used its Virtual Director software and a variety of rendering technologies to visualize the data.

AVL collaborated with the scientists and the Adler to design the visualizations. Stuart Levy, AJ Christensen, Alex Betts and Matthew Hall provided visualization programming and scene development. Robert Patterson and Jeff Carpenter provided visualization design, camera choreography and image compositing.

“It is a pleasure to work with Adler Planetarium,” says AVL director Donna Cox. “They completely grasp the impact and importance of the cinematic presentation of computational science.”

According to the Adler Planetarium: “Destination Solar System blends art, science and technology to create a unique, immersive experience. The show, presented live by a trained actor, features world-class simulations created with scientific data from current planetary space missions. These breathtaking visuals—many never seen before—are presented in the Grainger Sky Theater, which was designed with leading edge technologies that enable visitors to explore space as if they were there. In Destination Solar System, audiences are not passive observers, but active explorers immersed in their own personal space journey.”

For more information about “Destination Solar System,” visit For more about NCSA’s Advanced Visualization Laboratory, visit

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