ESO Supernova Planetarium and Visitor Center
The ESO Supernova Planetarium & Visitor Centre is a cooperation between the European Southern Observatory (ESO) and the Heidelberg Institute for Theoretical Studies (HITS), founded by the Klaus Tschira Stiftung (KTS), a German foundation. The building is a donation from the KTS, and ESO runs the facility. It is currently under construction near Garching, Munich.
It will be an innovative planetarium and visitor centre, unique in the world. The opening is scheduled for spring 2018. Already from the structure of the building, representing the shape of a couple of interacting binary stars, it is possible to understand the uniqueness of the ESO Supernova, whose main purpose will be to generate passion and enthusiasm for Astronomy in young and old.
Luckily, I have the possibility to share the office with the two scientists who are currently responsible for the creation of the scientific interactive applications ("interactives") that will be part of the exhibition of the visitor centre: Dr. Volker Gaibler and Dr. Dorotea Dudas. Volker is an astronomer, Dorotea is a mathematician and programmer. I had a long chat with them and asked some questions to better understand why the ESO Supernova will be so special, what their work consists of and to get an insider look on the emotions of a researcher involved in such a big project. Let's see what they answered.
What is the ESO Supernova and what will be different there with respect to other visitor centres?
The mainfocus of the ESO Supernova is to convey the current status of astronomical knowledge to people. There are not many other visitor centres active in that field. The focus is on the current state of knowledge in the various fields of current research. In the exhibition, we have such a wide range of astronomical topics so that people can learn essentially about any aspect of astronomy.
This means that the ESO Supernova will be a unique facility. Moreover, it will have a direct link of extensive astronomical public outreach and education with a world-renowned research organisation, the ESO. This direct link with the professional world will permit to bring the most recent science results to the visitors, equipping them with basic astronomical knowledge, but will also let them dive deep into their favorite topics.
When planning the structure of the exhibition, it was our desire to mirror the current state of knowledge in astronomy to the general public. Whatever question you have on astronomy or currently comes up in the news, visitors should at least find the basic tools to understand what it is about.
Which innovative technologies are you using to create the exhibition?
We will try to make visitors experience astronomy in a "hands-on" manner. There will be a number of large touch screens with various interactive content in the exhibition, as well as a touch-table, stations with virtual reality glasses, a bike to cycle with almost the speed of light and much more.
Learning about astronomical topics is much easier if it can also be done interactively. Because of that, the exhibition also includes many interactive stations that let you playfully learn about the topics. This is even more important as almost all astronomical objects are "out of reach" and with digital techniques we can make them "touchable".
Can you describe your work as an astronomer/programmer?
I have worked in astronomical research for many years. But transporting results to the generalpublic is often not so easy in daily research life. This project now allows me to pursue this goal, present complex topics in a simple way and create programs that are meant for educative and interactive use.
There is a lot of conceptual work required besides the programming and it is often challenging to find the balance between simple usage and still giving users the ability to explore a wealth of interesting options. In addition, the planning and testing of our application management system and general project management work keep my days busy enough.
It is a very interesting work, indeed. Not being an astronomer, I have learned a lot about this exciting field and got to work on a number of interactive applications that teach about various aspects of astronomy. The challenge is to combine the knowledge with the number of my astronomer colleagues in a way that the application is scientifically sound whilst keeping it interesting and pedagogically relevant. It is very satisfying to work on a number of different applications whose practical usage is perceivable.
Can you reveal something about the various interactives that you are creating?
One of the touch screen application deals with habitable zones. Habitable zones give an indication in which regions around stars a planet might host life and where not. Water is in a fluid state only at certain distances from the Sun. Users can pull the orbit trajectory of Earth out of this area, away from the Sun, causing water to freeze, making Earth into an inhospitable frozen planet. Pulling the Earth towards the Sun makes all the water evaporate and leaves Earth as a desolate desert planet.
"Gravity Pong" is a simple game that gives a feeling about how gravitational force influences the motion of astronomical bodies. Instead of scoring with paddles like in the classical "pong" game, the player needs to deflect the Earth towards the goal using a black hole. The motion of the objects is calculated in real-time, but the player controls the location with a touchscreen. Although the concept is very simple, it is quite fun to play.
Volker, within the next weeks you are going to visit the ESO observatories in Chile. Why? Tell us something about this trip and your feelings regarding the travel.
The great ESO observatories in the Chilean Atacama Desert are out of reach for most of our visitors, but we still would like to give them the opportunity to experience how it is to stay and work in these remote places with some of the largest telescopes on Earth. For this reason, we are preparing a tour of the Very Large Telescope and the ALMA radio telescope array with a 360-degree movie of these sites that visitors will be able to experience with virtual reality headsets. I am in fact very much looking forward to this exciting expedition. Since the ALMA antennas are located on a desert plateau at 5000 meters above sea-level, it will certainly be a very special experience.
Dorotea, which software and hardware environment are you using to program the interactives? How would you judge them in terms of resources requirements?
Finally, tell our readers why people should come and visit the ESO Supernova?
A visitor centre full of modern, up-to-date astronomy to me would already be a reason enough. Great planetarium shows even more. But it will actually offer so many opportunities to play and explore that you don't really need to be an "astro-fanatic" to have a great time there.
It is going to be a modern, interactive exhibition with a lot of interesting things to do – a great choice for a family to spend a day in an intellectually engaging yet playful way.
The entrance to Supernova ESO will be free. Will be pleasing donations to the structure.