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New Yorkers are Seeing Fiber Optics Stars
Jan 2001
The stars may shine brightly in New York Broadway theaters, but not in the city's evening sky. Light pollution has increasingly occluded the stars and planets over the town where only tourists look up. Next month, however, residents and tourists alike will be able to view a night sky with a clarity and detail that even Nebraskans don't often see. That is when the Hayden Planetarium at the Rose Center for Earth and Space plans to unveil its new Universarium Mark IX projector from Carl Zeiss Jena GmbH.
   It would have been easy enough for current technology to improve on the planetarium's old projector, which dated back to the 1960s. But since advances in astronomy have outpaced advances in accurate representations of the night sky, astronomers at the Hayden opted to push their improvements a step beyond current projector technology.

Fiber optic technology enabled a new star projector from Carl Zeiss Jena GmbH to increase the brightness of stars without increasing their diameter. Courtesy of the American Museum of Natural History.

   The result was a whole new generation of Zeiss star spheres. The $3.5 million machine shortens the gap between earlier projector technology and new astronomical discoveries made by NASA, the European Space Agency's Hipparcos database and other sources. "With all the new discoveries, we were not able to show everything we wanted to," said Holly Evarts, a spokeswoman for the Rose Center. "We needed the new technology so we could venture further out into space."
'Hyper-realistic' stars
The state-of-the-art projector uses fiber optic technology to create what the center describes as "hyper-realistic views of star fields, the sun and planets." An arc lamp projects light through 32 fiber-fed star masks, each creating a section of the celestial sphere and enabling control of individual star diameters and brightness.
   Conventional star masks are not capable of projecting stars smaller than the resolving power of the human eye. Also, as their holes decrease in size, so do the amounts of source light emitted. As a consequence, brighter stars from earlier projectors required larger holes, which created problems in accurately representing certain stars and blurring the contrast between bright and dim stars in close proximity.
   In the Hayden's new projector, fiber optic cables deliver light directly to the mask's pinhole, increasing the level of emitted light by a factor of 100. This reduces star diameters below the resolving power of the human eye and makes them appear like the dimensionless points familiar to stargazers. Also, size and brightness can be drawn as independent attributes for the planetarium's 9100 distant suns, and the stars in the facility are bright enough so that visitors can view instructive slides and videos superimposed over the celestial maps.

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