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San Diego Supercomputer Center Creates Spectacular Animation for Hayden Planetarium's American Museum of Natural History's New Space Show

Published 03/07/2002

UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA, SAN DIEGO - "The Search for Life: Are We Alone?" the new space show at the American Museum of Natural History's Hayden Planetarium at the Rose Center for Earth and Space, premiered March 2 in New York to rave reviews. The San Diego Supercomputer Center (SDSC) played an important role in creating a realistic animation showing the birth of our solar system.

"The Search for Life" was developed by the American Museum of Natural History in collaboration with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. The Show was written by Ann Druyan, writer/producer and Carl Sagan's long-time collaborator, and Steven Soter, an astrophysicist and writer in the Museum's Division of Physical Sciences, with music by Stephen Endelman. This same team also worked on the highly acclaimed "Passport to the Universe," narrated by Academy Award winner Tom Hanks and the first-ever Space Show presented to the public in the Rose Center, which opened on February 19, 2000. The Search For Life: Are We Alone? is made possible through the generous support of Swiss Re.

Narrated by Harrison Ford, the new space show presentation examines the possibility of life on other worlds. The eight-minute animation segment, created through the collaboration of visualization experts at SDSC, scientists and artists with the Museum's production team, and computer graphics specialists at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA), shows the formation of the Sun and its family of planets from a nebula of dust and gas, with millions of years of real time compressed into seconds.

"We are delighted to continue our collaboration with the Hayden Planetarium on this exciting project," said Fran Berman, director of SDSC and the National Partnership for Advanced Computational Infrastructure (NPACI). "Part of the center's mission is to assist science educators and to further the public's understanding of science and technology. I'm doubly pleased that SDSC was able to make a unique contribution with our visualization and data-management expertise, as well as our high-end computing resources."

The animation sequence starts outside the Milky Way galaxy and zooms toward a nebula in which stars are forming. Swirling dust and gas condense into protostars. The largest protostar "ignites" in hydrogen fusion; its brilliant blue-white light energizes gas in the nebula, causing an eerie red and green glow. The view shifts to a smaller newborn star with a thick disk of dust and gas orbiting the star's equator and jets of material streaming from its poles. The star brightens, the disk flattens, and dust and gas accrete into lumps - infant planets. One of them becomes Earth.

"The American Museum of Natural History animation team used state-of-the-art graphics techniques that can only be done on supercomputers," SDSC visualization expert David R. Nadeau said. "We've taken great care to keep the visualization both true to the science and entertaining for the audience. The result is what scientists believe you'd really see if you could fly around and into these amazing astronomical phenomena."

The animated segment rendered by SDSC was assembled as 42,000 high-resolution video frames, selected from more than 150,000 images created in the course of the effort. SDSC visualization programmer Erik Engquist and Nadeau developed custom software for rendering three-dimensional data to meet the planetarium's unique requirements. The rendering of these images occupied more than 1,000 processors of SDSC's Blue Horizon, one of the world's largest supercomputers, for more than five days.

The Space Show's Executive Producer is Anthony Braun, whose group was headed by Producer Christopher Scollard, Creative Director Gretchen Schwarz, Visualization Director Carter Emmart, and Supervising Sound Designer Benjy Bernhardt. The Director of Rose Center Engineering is Aram Friedman. The computer simulation of the formation of the nebula was the work of Mordecai-Mark Mac Low, Assistant Curator in the Museum's Department of Astrophysics. Science visualizer Ryan Wyatt of the American Museum of Natural History programmed the simulation of star motion. John Hawley of the University of Virginia created the protoplanetary disk simulation.

"The Search for Life: Are We Alone?" is a perfect example of what makes public education at the Museum unique," said Myles Gordon, Vice President for Education at the Museum. "Through our exhibitions and public programs, we are not only able to educate people about breakthrough scientific concepts, but also to do so with the benefit of insights and first-hand information provided by the Museum's scientists and researchers. It is the dynamic collaboration of astrophysicists, educators, computer scientists, science visualizers, artists, producers, engineers, sound designers, script writers, and composers that makes this new Space Show a unique experience and a potent educational tool."

Key personnel at NCSA included Donna Cox, senior researcher and a professor in the University of Illinois School of Art and Design, visualization programmer Robert Patterson, and senior research programmer Stuart Levy.

The work of the visualization artists at NCSA was integrated into the show through a process of remote virtual collaboration, using NCSA's Virtual Director software. To define the "flight path" for the sequence, Patterson, Cox, and Levy ran Virtual Director in the CAVE, a virtual reality display system at NCSA, and the Museum's production team in New York ran Virtual Director on the Hayden's Digital Dome system, enabling the two groups to interactively refine the camera viewpoints and resolve production issues.

The simulation and rendering data for the animation sequence was transferred between the three sites over the high-speed Abilene research network, run by the Internet2 project. In October 2001, the American Museum of Natural History became the first independent museum to connect to Internet2. The data files were stored and managed at SDSC. With nearly three terabytes - three million megabytes - of data to share and manage among the sites, the SDSC Storage Resource Broker, which provides a way to access data resources anywhere on the Net without regard to their physical locations, proved essential. George Kremenek of SDSC's Data and Knowledge Systems group played a key role in the data management.

In total, the animation segment consists of 70,000 high-resolution frames, counting additional portions rendered by NCSA and Hayden Planetarium programmers, scientists, and artists. The planetarium projects seven of these frames at a time onto the dome and blends them together to create a seamless, wrap-around image.

"Supercomputer data analyses and simulations play an ever-expanding role in all areas of science," Berman said, "especially in exploring the fundamental mysteries of life, decoding the human genome, and finding cures for diseases. I'm excited that supercomputer visualizations now help convey the thrill of investigating the place of life in the universe."

The San Diego Supercomputer Center (SDSC) is a national laboratory for computational science and engineering, and the leading-edge site of the National Partnership for Advanced Computational Infrastructure (NPACI). A research unit of the University of California, San Diego, SDSC is funded by the National Science Foundation through NPACI and other programs, other federal agencies, the State and University of California, and private organizations. For more information, see and

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. For more information, see

The National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign leads the National Computational Science Alliance, a consortium, like NPACI, in the NSF Partnerships for Advanced Computational Infrastructure program. For more information, see

CONTACTS: David L. Hart, SDSC External Relations,, 858-534-8314
Robin Lloyd, American Museum of Natural History,, 212-496-3419