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A trip beyond the edge of the observable universe

Road Trip 2010: CNET reporter Daniel Terdiman gets a behind-the-scenes look at the most complex planetarium show on Earth, and the complex astrovisualization that has been ten years in the making.

A stunning view of the International Space Station, as visualized in the Digital Universe, an 'observable atlas' created by scientists around the world, including Carter Emmart, the director of astrovisualization at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

NEW YORK--If you want to see what outer space looks like, there may be no better way to do so than to have Carter Emmart take you on a ride there.

As part of my Road Trip 2010 project, I got a chance to go on that journey, and I can say with high confidence that there are probably few people on Earth better equipped for such a voyage than Emmart.

In his role as director of visualization at the American Museum of Natural History's Rose Center for Earth and Space, Emmart is the leading force behind the programming for that institution's famous Hayden Planetarium. With the 2009 show, "Journey to the Stars," that treats visitors to a front-row seat on a high-paced jaunt to the edge of the universe and back, Emmart and the more than 40 other scientists responsible for the program have struck gold.

Click here for a full photo gallery from behind the scenes at the Hayden Planetarium

But I'd have to say I got luckier than most who have seen the show. While I didn't get a chance to see "Journey to the Stars" projected inside the planetarium's wonderful dome, I did get to see it--and have Emmart explain it to me, nearly frame by frame, in the Rose Center's computer room. There, we watched the show on six computer monitors, each of which displayed the content of one of the six projectors inside the planetarium. All told, then, I saw the entire show, just fractured into six pieces--and I have to say, that's a different and very interesting experience.

But Emmart didn't cheat me out of a chance to go deep into space inside the planetarium. For that, we waited until the last of the general public had left for the day and then climbed into the planetarium's control pit and took a custom and glorious voyage to the outer rim of the known universe, courtesy of Digital Universe, or what Emmart called an "observable atlas" of space.

While "Journey to the Stars" (see video below) is a set, 30-minute program based on six major datasets collected by more than 40 scientists from around the world, the Digital Universe is a nonstatic computer visualization of those datasets that allows for complete control of movement through space, as if you were a camera peering out at all that it beholds.

One of the major goals of the Digital Universe, Emmart explained to me, is to make it possible for students and teachers all over the world to experience the visualization of the science it contains. And that's possible through a software package called Uniview and the so-called Octopus interface, which allow those in other locations to essentially link in to what's being controlled at the Rose Center and experience it as if they were there. They may not get the chance to sit inside the Hayden Planetarium and see the visualizations on the inside of that fantastic dome, but they can still sit in on the trip to the farthest reaches of space.

And a big part of this effort is education. Emmart said that the Rose Center has already donated computers to schools in Cambodia in an effort to allow students and teachers at the school that received them to plug into the Digital Universe.

Up close and personal
While any Uniview user can check out the Digital Universe from afar, I was a bit luckier, and as I mentioned above, got the chance to see it, controlled by Emmart, from inside the Hayden Planetarium.

Ten years, ago, the planetarium was re-opened after a complete overhaul, and one of the major reasons for the project was so that visitors could get a chance to experience science like this in the best possible environment.

The dome has 24 speakers, and shakers under the wood floor and under each seat in a bid to make viewers' experience even more intense than it already is thanks to the fantastic visuals.

For me, seated in the pit beneath the floor, the treat was getting to watch Emmart at the controls of the visualization and the projection, and, I'll be honest, being able to ask him to pause to explain something, or even to back up and show it again.

The Digital Universe, while a visual journey to, yes, the stars, also features the ability to investigate Earth from not too far above the planet. So before we ventured off toward Saturn and beyond, Emmart showed me how he can use the system to take looks at specific spots on terra firma and even to do so using actual satellite imagery.

He demonstrated that by showing me terrific imagery taken above Iceland last spring. You'd probably remember that period very clearly if you were trying to fly in or out of Europe, as that was when Iceland's Eyjafjallajokull volcano erupted, sending huge plums of ash across Europe. In the imagery Emmart showed me, I could see the plume spreading clearly toward the continent, a distinct gray column that couldn't be mistaken for anything else.

A view of satellite imagery of the eruption of the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajokull. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

But there was no point in having all this power in our hands and not using it, so we soon left Iceland behind and jetted off toward the International Space Station. Quickly, we were alongside it, and Emmart took us in circles around it, using tools that allowed him to move in any direction, and to move time forward or back as he--or I--desired.

Then, it was off to Saturn and a look at what NASA's Cassini spacecraft is seeing on its mission to investigate that planet's moons.

And finally, we took a short (time-wise, of course) trip to what Emmart explained was the outer edges of observable space. One of the elements of the planetarium's science he is proud of is that it does not extrapolate from known science and guess at what is out there. Instead, it only showcases visualizations based on actual science.

And that's why we stopped at the edge of the giant cluster of galaxies represented by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, which is described as "covering more than a quarter of the sky and [including] 3-dimensional maps containing more than 930,000 galaxies and more than 120,000 quasars."

Emmart is clearly a world-class scientist, and he has been honored as such by, among others, the 2010 TED conference (see video below).

I found his explanations and his passion for his work thrilling, and I suspect anyone who got a chance to talk to him would as well.

Before we left the planetarium, Emmart gave a summation of his work on the "Journey to the Stars" and Digital Universe projects. I thought I'd include most of what he said here:

"When you're looking at this, you're looking at something that has taken humanity thousands of years, generations of people, [and] you're looking at something no one individual can do. What [the new planetarium] was built for was to display this data as it's coming in. Even in these last 10 years, these data sets...of galaxies have come in. This didn't exist 10 years ago. For us to be able to create a room to do this, that is what made it worthy to tear down the old Hayden Planetarium and build this anew.

"This is really an extraordinary portal of being able to see what humanity has put together with science and understanding what these things are, understanding what the sky was, understanding that the planets went around the sun, understanding how we, as a planet exist within this much larger picture. This is something that really has taken such a group effort of humanity to put together, and it's an honor and a privilege to work at an institution that wanted to reach this far, to show this much of modern science and to put it together into this."

Emmart also talked passionately about the goal of sharing the Digital Universe with students around the globe:

Having "the ability to do what we're doing here and link this up across the world to classrooms and planetariums everywhere, is something that's fundamental in the sense of appreciating where we are and who we are in the process of the universe, [and] the uniqueness of our planet, and that our planet is in space, [and that] we are in space. Why would we even want to go...somewhere else? Going out into space is fine, but we live in a system that we've evolved with, we're part of Earth, and that's extremely special, and we can't afford to do anything bad to this place. This is really, truly our home, and from here we can understand this. This [the Digital Universe] is a virtual journey, [and] we're not jumping in a real spaceship and going out. But this is the closest thing to a starship that exists to this point in history."

For the next few weeks, Geek Gestalt will be on Road Trip 2010. After driving more than 18,000 miles in the Rocky Mountains, the Pacific Northwest, the Southwest and the Southeast over the last four years, I'll be looking for the best in technology, science, military, nature, aviation and more throughout the American Northeast. If you have a suggestion for someplace to visit, drop me a line. In the meantime, you can follow my progress on Twitter @GreeterDan and @RoadTrip and find the project on Facebook. And you can also test your knowledge of the U.S. and try to win a prize in the Road Trip Picture of the Day challenge.