Fulldome Eclipse Animations from Rice University

With the Great American Eclipse of 2017 fast approaching, many planetariums are looking for content elements to use in local programming about eclipses. Rice University, supported by a grant from NASA’s Heliophysics Education Consortium, has developed a collection of fulldome eclipse visualizations from a variety of perspectives which can help audiences better understand the spatial relationship between the Sun, the Moon, and the Earth during a solar eclipse.

Here’s a sample:


For the convenience of SciDome users, Spitz has rendered these visualizations into the proper media formats and codecs for SciDome systems. To access these clips, contact Chris Seale at cseale@spitzinc.com for download information — we need to collect your information first so we can pass it on to Rice for their grant reporting purposes.

Simulating Juno’s Buzz by the Great Red Spot

Simulating Juno’s Buzz by the Great Red Spot

Great Red Spot cloud detail from Juno’s extreme close approach. Credit : NASA / SwRI / MSSS / Gerald Eichstädt / Seán Doran © cc nc sa

One of the astronomical highlights of last week was the pictures returned by the Juno spacecraft orbiting Jupiter when it zipped over the Great Red Spot at an extremely low altitude (8000 km.) Although the JunoCam camera on this mission was an afterthought for public outreach purposes and not a research experiment, the camera has returned some data that can be amazing when processed, and shows no signs of stopping yet, despite Jupiter’s harsh radiation environment.

To simulate this mission in Starry Night Version 7 on a Spitz SciDome planetarium, a couple of changes need to be made, even with recent updates. But with those changes made, you can simulate this flypast in Starry Night, and also think about using some of the real camera images from Juno on your dome as slides with ATM-4.

Firstly, we need to update the Space Missions file Juno.xyz. Starry Night V7 may already have a version of the mission path, but that is the *planned* mission. An anomaly in Juno’s rocket engine led to a revised mission plan with a different path. The original path does not include a periapsis over the Great Red Spot on the date in question, July 10th. To update the mission path, download this zipped folder, unzip it, and move the contained file Juno.xyz to the following location:

C:\ProgramData\Simulation Curriculum\Starry Night Prefs\Sky Data\Space Missions\Juno.xyz

This change is only made in one networked location to affect both computers, to avoid tediously installing it on Preflight and Renderbox in two steps. Files added to the “ProgramData” Sky Data folder will override files with the same names added to the old-fashioned Sky Data folder in the folder “Program Files (x86)”. The “ProgramData” structure exists so that V7 users no longer need to tediously make changes to Program Files on either computer.

Secondly, the position of the Great Red Spot needs to be updated. Jupiter is not a solid body, and the Great Red Spot has a tendency to drift, and its drift rate has a tendency to change, generating an accumulating error. So it’s not practical to just use the GRS as the index for the fixed period of rotation of Jupiter that is mapped out by the surface texture in Starry Night. The value of the drift is currently about +5° per month, and the current value of the drift is about 271° in Jupiter System II longitude. (Last week I was using a value of 269° and that also came out pretty good: 269° represents the value during the Juno encounter.)

To edit the value in Starry Night V7 for SciDome, locate the following file and open it using Wordpad (not Notepad:)

C:\Program Files (x86)\Starry Night Preflight\Sky Data\JupiterGRS.txt

You may recognize that the code inside is a little odd: Double slashes in odd places. If you are familiar with the coding, these slashes take on added significance. They should each represent the beginning of a new line of code that should be ignored by the program.

The only part of the file that is read by the program is the line that does not begin with two slashes. Please edit the file if necessary so the text is as follows, and the value is updated:

// Enter the mean longitude of the Great Red Spot on the following line. Visit
// the Starry Night Pro website at http://www.starrynightpro.com to get the
// latest value.

Then save the file into the ProgramData folder as follows, in a single step:

C:\ProgramData\Simulation Curriculum\Starry Night Prefs\Sky Data\JupiterGRS.txt

Once again, saving in this location means it’s not necessary to save changes on the other computer as well.

Artist’s rendering of the Juno spacecraft.

There is a 3D model of the Juno spacecraft in SciDome version 7, so you ought to be able to simulate its swooping down on the Great Red Spot in different ways: A long view of Jupiter with the Juno “Mission Path” turned on and the spacecraft labelled as a dot, or also flying alongside the spacecraft 3D model as the GRS looms on the limb of Jupiter overhead.

If you are using Starry Night Version 6 for Scidome, you can still place the attached Juno.xyz in the Space Missions folder of the original Sky Data folder on both computers and chart the updated path, but there is no 3D model of the spacecraft available. There is a separate 3D model that represents the asteroid (3) Juno, and they could get mixed up.

Because the GRS will continue to drift, you may wish to return to make subsequent edits to JupiterGRS.txt. The drift currently accumulates +5° per month, but because the drift rate can change, I recommend doing one of two things:

1) Now that you have the Juno simulation of what will probably be the best and closest images of the Great Red Spot for our lifetime, don’t make any further changes to the GRS value. Further edits to the drifting value will start to “break” the position of the GRS during the Juno flyby on July 10th, if you have built an ATM-4 automation out of it.

2) Continue to update the GRS position to represent reality based on observations, not predictions to avoid accumulating drift error. The current System II longitude of the GRS is kept up to date in a couple of places on the Internet, such as CalSky.

It is possible that Juno will have another encounter with the Great Red Spot on one of its remaining orbits, but the period of its orbit around Jupiter is 53 days. In multiples of 53 days the GRS position value will change by multiples of 9°, with some accumulation of error, and the orbital period of the spacecraft is not an integer multiple of the rotation period of Jupiter. Let’s wait and see.

Upcoming Fulldome Curriculum Lesson: Titius Bode Rule

Upcoming Fulldome Curriculum Lesson: Titius Bode Rule

Volume 3 of the Fulldome Curriculum includes a lesson based on the Titius-Bode “Rule.” In this new teaching module we present the orbits predicted by the Titius-Bode relation in a historical timeline compared to the actual planetary orbits to show students why this apparent rule was important in 18th and 19th century astronomy.

The Titius-Bode “Rule” purports to describe an apparent mathematical correspondence in the sizes of the orbits of the classic planets in our Solar System. Although the idea of some kind of relationship had been hypothesized before Johann Daniel Titius and Johann Elert Bode, their publications in 1766 and 1772, respectively, brought this relation into the limelight of astronomical thought, and hence it is named after them.

The idea is that there is a mathematical relationship between each of the orbits of the classic planets. Usually it is presented in the following form:


… where m = -∞, 0, 1, 2, 3,… and d is the semi major axis of the planet in astronomical units.

Historically, this relationship was believed to be revealing something intrinsic about the positioning of the planets in the Solar System, that there might have been some type of resonance phenomenon within the formation of the planets within the solar nebula. The reason for this belief came out of the astronomical discoveries which were made subsequent to its popularization in the 18th century. To see this in its historical context, let’s set up a table the way it would have been constructed in the late 1700’s:

Interesting results, but the huge gap between Mars and Jupiter posed a real problem!

SciDome view showing Uranus’ orbit
compared to the Titius-Bode prediction

Shortly after the Titius-Bode “Law” became publicized, William Herschel in 1781 discovered a new planet, Uranus! This was a paradigm changing discovery, but what was just as incredible was that its semi major axis was calculated to be 19.2 AU, nearly doubling the size of the Solar System! Just as remarkable, the next predicted semi major axis from the Titius-Bode “Law” was 19.6 AU, only 2.1% different from the measured size!

This discovery started astronomers thinking that perhaps there was more to the Titius-Bode “Law” than they once thought, that perhaps it wasn’t coincidence but was revealing a yet undiscovered physical relationship within the Solar System. Twenty years later, on the first night of the new century, 1801, Father Giuseppe Piazzi discovered a new “planet,” later named Ceres.

What was truly remarkable about this new planet was that it’s semi major axes was eventually calculated with a new mathematical method by Carl Friedrich Gauss to be 2.8 AU, nearly exactly what the Titius-Bode “Law” had predicted for a planetary body residing in the gap between Mars and Jupiter!  Of course soon thereafter many more bodies were discovered to reside within the gap, and by the 1850’s these objects were renamed asteroids.

However, the belief in the Titius-Bode “Law” was gaining new proponents, since it seemed to have predicted positions in which Solar System objects were subsequently discovered! The next predicted orbit would lie at 38.8 AU, and the search was on for yet another planet! Sure enough, Neptune was discovered with the aid of Newtonian physics in 1846, but its semi major axis was 30.1 AU, not the 38.8 AU expected from the Titius-Bode relationship.

SciDome display showing the large discrepancy between Neptune’s orbit (30.1 AU) and the predicted Titius-Bode orbit of 38.8 AU

This large discrepancy led to the virtual abandonment of the Titius-Bode relationship as a physical law. However, it’s interesting to note that when Pluto was discovered in 1930 its semi major axis was determined to be 39.5 AU, very close to the previously expected distance. Of course Pluto has now been relegated to dwarf planet status because of the myriad of new objects which have been discovered in the Kuiper Belt.

The next expected semi major axis from the Titius-Bode relationship is 77.2 AU. And isn’t it interesting that Sedna’s perihelion distance is 76.1 AU, although its semi major axis is a whopping 506.8 AU!

The moral of the story seems to be that although the Titius-Bode relationship has never been convincingly proven to come from physical laws, it is noteworthy historically but also serves to perhaps warn us about jumping to conclusions even though the initial evidence may seem inviting. The Titius-Bode relationship is today such a controversial topic that Icarus, the main professional journal for presenting papers on Solar System dynamics, refuses to publish any articles on the subject!

Epicycles and Discovering Bad Theories

Epicycles and Discovering Bad Theories

Our ancestors were highly intelligent people who devised ingenious methods to model what they perceived to be reality in the skies. Unfortunately, they came at many of these observations with deep-rooted prejudices and a priori (preconceived) beliefs which shackled their creativity.

Figure 1: Close up of the Ptolemaic system out to the Sun’s sphere

The prevalent, far-reaching belief was that the Earth was immovable and at the center of the universe. Of course we know this is preposterous (even to the point that there is no such thing as a center to the universe), it is still a useful exercise to challenge students to prove, without leaving the Earth or using satellites, that the Earth does indeed rotate and that it revolves about the Sun.

Another a priori assumption was that celestial bodies never stopped moving, as opposed to “earthly” objects which eventually came to a halt. So, when the planets periodically went back and forth in the sky, this was unacceptable and Apollonius of Perga came up with a “solution” that allowed the wanderers to be always moving without stopping by coupling two motions at once. The planets were not simply attached to a mystical sphere (“deferent”) but they were actually attached to a mini-sphere (“epicycle”) which rotated on the larger one.

Figure 2: Mercury’s retrograde path in the Ptolemaic system

In this way planets could move around the sky but intersperse that generally easterly motion with apparent backwards motion (retrograde) when the transparent epicycle carried the planet backwards.  The ancients latched on to it and it was greatly preferred to having deferents slow down, stop, go backwards, stop, then resume their original direction.

My colleague David Steelman and I created a program called Epicycles for SciDome that illustrates the main characteristics of the Ptolemaic Geocentric Model.  It helps students discover the systemics of the model which can only be explained as “it just has to be that way”. Whenever that is the reasoning, it signals a problem with the theory/model.  This will become obvious as we go through this paper.

Let’s first take a close look at the bodies closest to the Earth in the geocentric model, as shown in Figure 1.

The Moon moves the fastest in the sky (and even changes shape!) so it was assumed to be closest to Earth.  Placement of Mercury and Venus closer to the Earth than the Sun was problematic.  The theory was based upon the idea that those that appeared to move the slowest must be farthest away from Earth.  The problem is that the epicycle containing Mercury, the epicycle containing Venus, and the Sun all orbited around the Earth in one year!  So their order was reluctantly agreed upon because Mercury moved fastest on it epicycle, Venus next fastest, and of course the Sun had no epicycle (because it never retrograded).

Figure 3: Venus and Mercury’s retrograde paths in the Ptolemaic system

The epicycle sizes are based on arbitrarily assumed distances from Earth. The angles had to match the size of the retrograde loops seen in the sky so, looking at Figure 1, Mercury’s epicycle is tiny compared to Venus’ because Mercury’s retrograde loop is about 52 degrees in extent whereas Venus’ is about 92 degrees! The fact that Venus is farther away than Mercury from the Earth in this model requires it to be considerably larger than one might expect, but these are to scale to create the properly sized retrograde patterns.

As time is progressed a trace can be turned on which shows the retrograding patterns of the planets. Figure 2 shows a close up of Mercury and Figure 3 that of Venus.

When I ask students if they see anything peculiar as time progresses, eventually someone notices that the centers of the epicycles of Mercury and Venus are exactly and always lined up with the line connecting the Earth and Sun (the Earth-Sun Line). What explanation would the ancients have given for this? “It just has to be this way for this model to work.” Red flag number 1 that there’s something wrong with this theory.

Figure 4: The planets beyond the Sun’s sphere

Of course we know that in the Copernican heliocentric model we don’t need epicycles to cause Mercury and Venus to wobble back and forth around the Sun because they are simply closer to the Sun than Earth and they orbit the Sun. In fact, Copernicus was the first to completely untangle the motions of Mercury and Venus from the Sun’s motion.

This confusion is one rarely-discussed reason why the Copernican heliocentric model was so appealing. It unambiguously separated the motions of Mercury and Venus and even established, for the first time, their orbital periods around the Sun (88 days and 225 days, respectively).

Now observe the planets beyond the Sun, as shown in Figure 4. As we advance time another strange systematic displays itself, although this one is a lot more challenging to pick out. The Earth-Sun Line is always parallel to the planet’s epicycle radius!  You can easily see this in Figure 4 now that you know to look for it.

Again, the ancients noted this “coincidence” but could never explain it other than “it has to be this way for the model to work.” Another red flag has raised itself in the flawed Ptolemaic model!  The basic reason for this “coincidence” is because the retrograde motion of each planet is a function of its position relative to the Earth in its own orbit. Since we’re locking down the Earth and moving the Sun, it’s the orientation of the Earth-Sun Line that is the determining factor as to when planets exhibit their retrograde motions.

Figure 5 – The retrograde paths of the planets beyond the Sun’s sphere

When the planets leave breadcrumbs (see Figure 5) their retrograding paths become obvious. Again, the model has been carefully defined to accurately recreate the width of the retrograde loops as well as their frequency.

This is a fun and thought provoking lesson for my students because it demonstrates how intelligent and clever the ancients were in mimicking celestial motions, but it also shows how preconceived notions can weigh one down and severely complicate the model. It also clearly points out that when certain “features” of a model have no other explanation than “it has to be that way for the model to work” that the model is most likely flawed or incorrect at its core. But having the Earth move was a huge paradigm shift, and it took over 1500 years to overthrow it!

Exploring Roemer’s Method for Determining the Speed of Light

Exploring Roemer’s Method for Determining the Speed of Light

In the 17th century the speed of light was unknown, and scientists questioned whether it had a finite value. Descartes argued that if the speed of light was finite, when we looked out into space with telescopes we’d be looking into the past. That idea was so off-putting, he concluded the speed of light must be infinite.

We now know it’s not infinite. If it were, the universe couldn’t exist. Remember Einstein’s famous E=mc²: if the speed of light c was infinite, the amount of energy contained in any amount of matter would be infinite! Good luck with that…

Ole Roemer, a Danish astronomer in the 17th century, stumbled upon the speed of light during timing observations of the emergence of Jupiter’s closest Galilean moon, Io, from behind the planet’s limb. He noticed the moon’s appearances didn’t match his predicted times, and by studying them through the year realized it was ahead or behind the predicted time, depending upon how far away Jupiter was from Earth! He correctly reasoned that this variation was not due to some strange inconsistency with Io’s orbit but rather that he was observing what is now called the light-time effect.

Starry Night simulates the light time effect, so we can reproduce Roemer’s 1676 measurements of Io’s emergence from Jupiter’s limb to directly show the light time effect, and even measure the speed of light.

Figure 1: Io emerging from Jupiter’s eastern limb

Figure 1 shows Io emerging from Jupiter’s eastern limb. This view was measured by Roemer in Copenhagen on November 9, 1676. Using Starry Night’s ability to transport us anywhere in space, we can specify a direct route to Jupiter but hold the time constant.

In other words, if we could transport instantly to 0.20 AU from Jupiter (an arbitrarily distance for a nice view of the scene), what would we see? As we travel to Jupiter, we’ll see Io appear to move further and further eastward from the limb even though time has stopped and we’re traveling on a direct line to Jupiter, as shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2: Io appears farther from Jupiter as we reduce our distance

If the speed of light were infinite, when we transported to Jupiter Io would be emerging from the limb, the same view as from Copenhagen. Because the light time effect is built into Starry Night, we see Io has actually emerged significantly past the limb. In other words, on Earth we saw Io just emerging from Jupiter’s limb, but in the neighborhood of Jupiter it has already long since passed from behind the limb!

The difference occurs because of the light time effect.

We can measure the speed of light directly from these observations. We know the distance we covered in our journey from Earth (5.326 AU = 7.968 x 108 km). We can now step back time and return Io back to its emerging position from Jupiter’s limb as seen from this nearby location to Jupiter. If we place Io back on Jupiter’s eastern limb by reversing time in Starry Night, it takes 44m 20s to do so, or 2660 seconds. To estimate the speed of light, we simply take the distance we traveled and divide it by the time, as follows:

Thus we obtain a value for the speed of light only 0.08% different from the actual value of 299,792 km/s!

Figure 3: Line of sight from Earth to Jupiter’s limb

Steve Sanders (Eastern University Observatory Administrator) and I have created a simulation which clearly illustrates this phenomenon, as seen in the figures below. This simulation will be included in the release of Volume 3 of the Fulldome Curriculum and you can preview it on Youtube.

Figure 3 shows the line of sight from Earth to Io as it has emerged past Jupiter’s limb, the event that Roemer was measuring. We depict the event close to opposition with Jupiter (Earth’s closest approach to the planet) and the distance between the bodies is approximately 3.95 AU = 3.67 x 108 million miles.

The same event is shown in Figure 4 when Earth and Jupiter are nearing conjunction (Jupiter nearing a syzygy with the Earth and Sun in between). Note that the distance separating the planets is now 5.75 AU = 5.34 x 108 million miles.

Figure 4: Earth and Jupiter nearing conjunction

Roemer measured the emergence of Io as being about 15 minutes later than when this emergence occurred close to opposition and attributed the lateness (correctly) to the extra distance that the light had to travel across the Earth’s orbit.

If you assume that this tardiness is entirely due to the extra time required for light to travel the extra distance, you can estimate the speed of light as follows:


The value of the astronomical unit at that time was very crudely known, so Roemer’s value for the speed of light was not nearly this accurate, but nonetheless he demonstrated that the speed of light was finite, and its value was of this order.

We encourage SciDome operators to use the Roemer Speed of Light minilesson in Volume 1 of the Fulldome Curriculum, along with our new simulation. The discovery of the finite speed of light forever changed our view of the universe, turning our distance-shrinking telescopes into literal time machines as we explore back into our cosmic past.

Recreating Jupiter’s Galilean Moons in SciDome

Recreating Jupiter’s Galilean Moons in SciDome

Figure 1: Page from the original printing of Sidereus Nunicius showing Galileo’s sketches of the Medicean Moons

In many of our astronomy classes, we discuss the importance of Galileo’s first telescopic observations in eventually overthrowing the Ptolemaic geocentric system. His first observations were relayed to the public in his short book Sidereus Nuncius, which is Latin for The Starry Messenger (or arguably, The Starry Message). In it he relates his observations of the Moon, the myriad of new stars he observed (with sketches of the Pleiades and Praesepe regions), and the Moons of Jupiter.

He originally called these the Medicean Stars, a call out to his potential benefactors, the four Medici brothers (the book itself was dedicated to one of them who had been a former pupil). Seeking for funds for your science… things really haven’t changed very much in 400 years…

With Starry Night, SciDome can easily reproduce the date and situations of Galileo’s observations. Others have done this in the past, and I refer you to the excellent article by Enrico Bernieri called “Learning from Galileo’s Errors” published in the Journal of the British Astronomical Association, 122, 3 (2012) which goes through his observations in detail and discusses the errors which Galileo made.

Another excellent article is by Michael Mendillo in the Proceedings of the IAU Symposium No. 269 (2010) called “The Appearance of the Medicean Moons in 17th Century Charts and Books – How Long Did It Take?” which gives rich background on some of the aftermath of Galileo’s revelations.

I also highly recommend the Wikipedia article on Sidereus Nuncius as an excellent starting point in building your background information on Galileo’s first telescopic observations. In addition, Ernie Wright has graphically reproduced Galileo’s observations and placed them online in an excellent web presentation.

With the incredible talent of Steve Sanders (Eastern University Observatory Administrator), I have created a minilesson for Volume 3 of the Fulldome Curriculum which reproduces all of Galileo’s published observations of the Medicean moons.

Figure 2: SciDome presentation of Galileo’s first Jupiter observations from January 7, 1610 from Padua, Italy.

Using Padua, Italy as our observation location and the approximate times given for each observation in Sidereus Nuncius, we begin with the close-up view of Jupiter on the dome as seen on January 7, 1610 at approximately 6 PM local time. Next we place a slide of the view as drawn by Galileo in Sidereus Nuncius below the view to show just how accurate Galileo was in his sketches. The labels of the Galilean moons are then displayed.

Note that although all four moons presented themselves, Io and Europa were too close together to be resolved by Galileo’s homemade 20X telescope which suffered also from chromatic and spherical aberration. This is an important fact to remember, because essentially all of the “errors” which we will find in comparing his sketches to the actual viewing circumstances were because of his lack of resolution.

We proceed by advancing time in Starry Night so that the audience can watch the dance of the moons around Jupiter and stop at the next observations of Jupiter as recorded by Galileo, on January 8, 1610. Then his sketch of this configuration is displayed, and again we note the accuracy of his rough sketches.

The minilesson continues in this fashion, showing the moons moving from date to date and then presenting 21 successive sketches by Galileo as presented in Sidereus Nuncius. Galileo concluded after four nights of observations that these tiny “stars” were indeed most likely satellites of Jupiter, which was of momentous importance because it was the first time that moons had been discovered around another body.

It also indicated that a planet could move and moons “stay up with it” despite its motion, an Aristotelian argument once offered to discount that the Earth could be moving because, if it did, how could the Moon know enough to keep up with it? Obviously Jupiter had at least four moons and they had no problem staying with it!

I have found that going through many of these configurations with my students greatly enhances their appreciation of Galileo and the great discoveries that he made despite the limitations of his equipment. Presenting this minilesson engages students in the realization that Galileo was both an excellent and honest observer as well as a genius. His observations helped to lead to the downfall of the geocentric universe and the eventual acceptance of the heliocentric model