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Vol. 16, no. 3
June/July 2013


Under the Digital Sky 
Story by Robert Onopa
Photo by Olivier Koning

The darkness floods
with dots of light. Planets bloom on cue, and an ocean of stars spreads across the sky—the kind of sky you’d see sailing beyond Ni‘ihau on a moonless night. It’s breathtaking. And it’s indoors. “We now produce, by far, the best re-creation of the night sky in a medium-sized dome, anywhere,” says Mike Shanahan, director of the Bishop Museum’s J. Watumull Planetarium, who shepherded its $1.5 million upgrade completed in January.


The rug is new, the seats are new, even the dome is new (and seamless). At its heart sits a hybrid imaging system that combines a state-of-the-art optical star machine with vivid high-definition video and enhanced audio. “The optical system is the only way to reproduce stars as they really are, sharp and in color,” Mike says. The result is visible in the planetarium’s long-running program, “The Sky Tonight,” which tracks the movement of the stars, constellations and planets. It’s a live show directed by docents, punctuated by fly-bys of Jupiter and other heavenly bodies through HD video optimized for the curved dome. Its climax is an IMAX-quality fly-through of the rings of Saturn, HD video zooming into the brilliant shave ice of the rings.


“The planetarium is a world unto itself, the entire cosmos in a small dome,” Mike says, speaking like the Renaissance man he is—he wrote a thesis on Milton and Galileo, taught himself astronomy, plays classical guitar and just bought a copy of Hamlet for the beach. He’s engineered a major NASA grant to create programming for local students, and in partnership with the Polynesian Voyaging Society, the planetarium is updating its popular offering on Hawaiian celestial navigation. The completely new, live show, which will open September 21, features an astronomical travelog of the Pacific with full-dome images over Tahiti, Samoa and Hawai‘i and illustrates both Hawaiian astronomy and recently relearned techniques of Polynesian wayfinding, like using the star compass. It promises a chicken-skin immersion into the very sky that led the first Hawaiians to these Islands more than a thousand years ago.