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Between light pollution and crowded roof-deck bars, getting a good look at the night sky in D.C. can be more hassle than it’s worth. The Air and Space Museum’s Einstein Planetarium is a decent (and air-conditioned) alternative, and after an extensive renovation late last month, the view is better than ever.
This is Einstein’s first big upgrade since 2002, when the majority of its analog projectors were traded out for digital ones. The newest setup, an 8K Full Dome Digital System with a picture resolution 16 times greater than HD, is the only one of its kind in the Northeast—as close to a real-life stargazing session as you can get.
Science celebrity du jour Neil deGrasse Tyson of Cosmos fame narrates the first film on the new system’s docket: Dark Universe, a deep-space visualization of “what makes up the universe—what we can see, but almost more importantly, what we can’t see,” says Andy Johnston, a Smithsonian geoscientist who advised the making of the film. All of which is to say that the choicest space-out spot in D.C. just got a whole lot trippier.
The planetarium, which opened in 1976, still uses its original analog projector for live night-sky lectures a few times a week. A gift from West Germany for the U.S. bicentennial, the dumbbell-shaped machine does a better job, with lightbulbs and lenses, at simulating starlight than any digital projection can.
Using the old digital system, an image or film would stretch 2,400 pixels across the planetarium’s dome. The new one packs in 8,000 pixels (hence the “8K” moniker), which means more detail and better clarity. The new projector is brighter, too, but just as significant is its deep darkness— since, you know, the bulk of outer space is pretty damn dark.
A new surround-sound system, including giant sub-bass speakers and enhanced amplifiers, was tuned by a leading IMAX audio designer, ready to capture the full range of deGrasse Tyson’s soothing tones. “Our system is actually more advanced than a lot of the content out there,” says Johnston. But as more planetariums adopt these highest-res machines, we can expect to see more films, like Dark Universe, tailor-made for the 8K screen.