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“Relevance of Collections”—the Artefacts meeting comes to Chicago

For more than two decades now, the Artefacts consortium has been promoting an annual meeting that brings together museum professionals and scholars working with scientific and technological collections. This year’s meeting, the 23rd in the series, was hosted by the Adler Planetarium, under the theme “Relevance of Collections.”

During the three days of Artefacts XXIII (Oct. 14-16; see program here), we witnessed a wonderful roll of presentations given by speakers from nine countries and 16 institutions. We saw how overlooked or “sleeping” objects in science and technology museums gain new lives when their stories are researched deeper. Or when we think of them not in terms of success vs. failure, but as material evidence for dynamic processes of inquiry and invention, and personal endeavor. We heard about museum artifacts acquiring new meanings when revisited with the aid of modern technologies—for example, early sound recordings literally being made to speak, revealing their content after decades of silence.

We learned more about the immense potential of digital technologies, be it to engage audiences all over the world with a museum collection through video-gaming, or to rekindle a traditional exhibition project that was hampered by political events, but which came to fruition nonetheless in digital form. Digital images and storytelling tools will never replace the actual artifacts, but they can be a powerful aid in overcoming various kinds of obstacles as we seek to make museum objects ever more visible and accessible.

Art historians and curators shared their views on the intersections and overlaps between art and science collections, which are much more intertwined than the traditional disciplinary divisions followed by cultural institutions may suggest. In fact, the need to go beyond conceptual and institutional boundaries, including within institutions, came across several presentations. It was particularly evident in a session led by staff from the Adler’s collections, citizen science, and visualization teams, which highlighted how important it is to raise awareness for collections among museum staff at large and to foster collaboration across different departments in order to further explore their potential.

In the closing session, we went back to the fundamental issues underlying the whole meeting: what to preserve, what for, for whom? Or, as one the last speakers aptly puts it, “What’s worth preserving?”. There will never be definitive answers to such questions, and it is up to each institution to find the responses that will suit them best. But it’s certainly worth, helpful, and inspiring to debate these issues with colleagues from all over the world in a lively, friendly, and thought-provoking environment, as we experienced at the Adler over the three days of Artefacts XXIII. And one thing is for sure—museum collections will remain relevant as long as the museum community strive to make them meaningful to broader society, and keep on exploring creative ways to do so.

Header image: Cathleen Lewis speaking about the changing meaning of the National Air and Space Museum’s spacesuit collection.

The Magic Behind Planetarium Domes

Hi, I’m Nick Lake, Presentation Leader & Theater Technician here at the Adler Planetarium. Today, I’d like to talk about our planetarium theaters, specifically the domes, and how we use planetarium software to transport viewers to new worlds.

For me, the most exciting thing about planetarium domes is the ability to make the audience feel like they are really transported to far away places. As an example, for our monthly Yoga Under the Stars program, I make the most of this capability, transporting our yoga guests all around our Universe. During one pose, participants are on the surface of the Moon. In the next pose, they are on a Norwegian mountain top viewing the northern lights. After that, they’re in Mars’ orbit, looking down at the cavernous Mariner Valley.

It’s a lot of fun playing around with different landscapes, symbolically shrinking the audience down, allowing them to gain a different perspective from what they would experience in the everyday world.

To show you how we prepare an image for the dome, I’m going to use this armillary sphere located near the Adler’s Telescopes: Through the Looking Glass exhibition. I want to make the audience feel like they’ve been transported inside this piece.

Armillary Sphere in Telescopes Gallery

To capture the shot, I use a camera equipped with a circular fisheye lens, which captures a hemispherical image that will map easily to the shape of the dome in our Grainger Sky Theater. This image shape helps me imagine the shot and how it will look when the audience is “standing inside it.”

Camera with fisheye lens

As I prepare to capture the shot, I have to remember when framing the image that the center of the picture will appear directly above the audience’s head and therefore be hard to see unless you crane your neck upward at a potentially uncomfortable angle. This is because the direct center of the planetarium dome is not the focal point for audiences. Rather, the focal point is off center and halfway down from the center of the dome.

In order to make sure that the focal point of my image appears on the correct part of the dome, I need to adjust the shot so that it appears more toward the bottom center of my image. In this case, I want the Earth globe in the center of the armillary sphere to be the focal point and I’ve adjusted the camera accordingly.

Inside Armillary Sphere

Once the image is captured, it’s time to upload it to our planetarium software. The Grainger Sky Theater has six projectors, each connected to four computers. Each of these computers needs a copy of the image so it is able to produce its portion when called upon. Copying the entire image to each computer (instead of copying just one section) allows for the fulldome image to be rotated, flipped, etc., in real time during the presentation. (Yes, for yoga the show is run manually, giving some extra flexibility and versatility)

Thankfully, our planetarium software takes care of the complex math in this next step. (Phew!) It pieces together the individual images, making them appear like one seamless image across the dome of the theater.

Planetarium software calculating how to bend an image.

Once the software has done the math—voila!—you’ve been transported. Here I am standing in the Grainger Sky Theater looking up from “inside” our armillary sphere!

Nick Inside the Armillary Sphere

Our image works really well! And you can see it for yourself at home using this VR/360 view on your mobile device!

The planetarium dome is an amazing canvas full of challenges and opportunities. Next time you’re planning a trip to the Adler, consider Yoga Under the Stars, which happens every first Saturday of the month. Then you can watch the magic unfold on the dome for yourself, all while enjoying a relaxing morning wake up!

Adler Skywatch: December 2018

Do the days seem to be getting a little darker this month? It’s not your imagination. You can see the change for yourself, along with some of the night’s brightest stars and planets, during the month of December 2018!

This month the Sun rises around 7:00 am CT, and sets before 4:30 pm. That means we get fewer than ten hours of sunlight each day. This trend will continue until around the time of the solstice, which falls on the 21st at 4:23 pm CT. Around that date, the trend reverses; and the daylight hours gradually get longer.

The first week of the month, just after sunset, look very close to the southwest horizon to try to spot the planet Saturn. The evening of the 8th, it’s just above and to the left of an extremely thin waxing crescent Moon—though it may be difficult to see either Saturn or the Moon unless you have a clear view to the southwest. By mid-month Saturn appears so close to the setting Sun that it will be difficult if not impossible to see.

During evening twilight, the planet Mars is about 40 to 45 degrees high in the south-southeast. The night of the 14th it appears a few degrees above a waxing crescent Moon. Mars is low in the west-southwest around 10 p.m. Central time.

Later in the evening, around 11Loo pm, some of the night’s brightest stars form a great circle in the southern skies. Start with the lowest and the brightest star, Sirius, in the constellation Canis Major. Move your line-of-view clockwise and upward to reach the star Procyon, in Canis Minor; followed by Pollux and Castor, the “twin” stars in the constellation Gemini. At the top of the circle is bright Capella, in the constellation Auriga. Continue moving clockwise, but downward, to reach the star Aldebaran, in the constellation Taurus. Further down the circle is Rigel, in the constellation Orion. And further downward and to the left completes the circle back at Sirius.

As morning twilight begins, look for brilliant Venus low in the southeast. The morning of the 3rd, it appears below a waning crescent Moon. After mid-month, as morning twilight brightens the sky, try looking downward from Venus, close to the horizon and about 20 degrees to Venus’s left. With clear skies, you may spot two more planets: bright Mercury and even-brighter Jupiter. The mornings of the 21st and 22nd they appear only about a degree apart, even though the two planets are actually many millions of miles away from each other in space. Mercury drops toward the horizon each morning, but Jupiter climbs higher in the sky through the month.

New Moon: December 7
First Quarter Moon: December 15
Full Moon: December 22
Last Quarter Moon: December 29

**Please note: these descriptions are for the Chicago area, using Central time.

Adler Staff Star: Meet Sarah!

Sarah W.
Manager of Development

What do you enjoy the most about working at the Adler?
I have the best job: I get to be a storyteller and ambassador for the Adler out in the community, and invite the community to be a part of what we’re doing at the Adler. The Adler team is so passionate and talented, it’s always a joy to say, “join us!”

What is one of your favorite memories from your time at the Adler?
A couple of years ago, my 80-year-old grandparents came with me to an event here. The Doane Observatory was open that night, and they saw the Pleiades through the most powerful telescope they’d ever used. It was a fantastic lesson for me that you’re never too old to have your world expanded!

Why, in your opinion, is space freaking awesome?
There are so many insane space facts, but for me, what makes space freaking awesome is simply how it unites us all on Earth. The vastness of space compared to our tiny planet we call home reminds me how connected we all are and how important it is for us all to be looking out for one another.

What do you like to do outside the Adler?
I have a special place in my heart for middle schoolers, and volunteer with a youth group/mentoring organization called Young Life. We hang out at least once a week, and our activities range from crazy—playing frisbee with a squid!—to serious, walking them through whatever life is throwing at them.

Share one interesting fact about yourself!
Our friends are convinced that our cat is imaginary—she’s so shy she hides whenever my husband and I have friends over, no one else has actually seen her! Who knows, maybe she’s a figment of our imaginations too!

Episode 3 of The Aquarius Project Podcast is Now Available!

Episode 3 of the Aquarius Project Podcast is available now! If you’re new to the series, start here.

It’s been a minute since our last update about The Aquarius Project, the Adler Planetarium’s one-of-a-kind underwater meteorite hunt. If you haven’t been following #aquariusproject on Open Explorer or your social media platform of choice, you might not know how busy the team has been.

In the past few months, they’ve taken two trips to the crash site on a research vessel called the Neeskay, recovered several buckets of rocks (some of which might be from space, but we won’t know for sure until every pebble and grain of sand has been thoroughly examined in the lab), and won a Chicago Innovation Award!

You can learn more about the project, get to know the team, and join us on this great adventure in The Aquarius Project Podcast, a six-episode series that follows the project from its humble origins in the asteroid belt to the bottom of the lake and back. Listen to the first three episodes (and subscribe to, rate, and review the podcast!) on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, and SoundCloud.

Choose the Moon With Us This Winter!

This winter, we’re stopping to #LookUp and celebrate the mysteries and magnetism of our closest celestial neighbor, the Moon.

The Moon has been a source of wonder for all of human history. It has been a muse for poetry, art, and epic stories. As people studied and recorded the patterns of the Moon’s movements, they discovered that it was much more than a mysterious light in our sky.

Join us as we come together to experience a total lunar eclipse—the first visible to us in its entirely since 2015!—as well as premiere a brand new sky show, Imagine the Moon, which takes a closer look at the Earth’s relationship with our little orbiting satellite!

Beginning December 2018
Installation featuring Moon by UK artist Luke Jerram

January 18, 2019
Imagine the Moon sky show premiere

January 20, 2019
Lunar Eclipse Observing Event
And more!

Presented by
Sponsored by the Magellan Corporation

Chicago: A City of Stargazers

Chicago has long been a city of stargazers. And one way or another, all astronomical roads in Chicago have led to the Adler since it became the first planetarium in the Western Hemisphere in 1930. Here are a few stories, objects, and documents from our collections that remind us how the Adler has helped Chicagoans come together to explore the sky through the decades.


In 1862, a group of prominent citizens founded the Chicago Astronomical Society (CAS), with the aim of raising the cultural and scientific reputation of the city. CAS is the oldest astronomical society in America. It was responsible for the establishment of the Dearborn Observatory at the old University of Chicago in the 1860s. The observatory hosted the Dearborn refractor, at the time the largest telescope in the world, now an iconic instrument that you can see on display in our Telescopes exhibition. Philip Fox, the Adler Planetarium’s first director, was also the secretary of the CAS. He laid the groundwork for an enduring relationship between the two institutions. CAS carries out its mission of promoting public engagement with astronomy through lectures, observing events, etc., and to this day has held regular meetings at the Adler.


In the 1930s, a movement known as Amateur Telescope Making started to take shape in the United States. Amateurs all over the country—including here in Chicago—formed groups and associations devoted to the making of telescopes. Philip Fox invited the local amateur telescope makers to use the Adler’s premises, which they keenly accepted. One of the leading figures among these amateurs was William S. Buttles (1898-1940), who, together with his wife Lois, steered a group called Astrolab. Buttles collaborated with other Astrolab members in designing a portable reflecting telescope called the Polar Bowl. Several of these telescopes were used in a “Portable Observatory” that took astronomy to schools, community groups, and several organizations—similar to what Adler does today with ’Scopes in the City.


In 1956, the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory launched Operation Moonwatch with the aim of tracking artificial satellites. Many volunteers across America set out to watch the skies with telescopes specifically designed for this purpose. The program gained momentum after the launch of Sputnik I by the Soviet Union in October 1957, becoming emblematic of the Cold War and the Space Race. But above all, it led many people to engage with astronomy and space science. Such was the case of the CAS junior members who met at the Adler to survey the skies in search of satellites. The world has changed a lot since then, but an immense Universe is still out there to explore, and the Adler is sure to keep on bringing people together to do just that.

Above: Junior members of CAS observing at the Adler’s rooftop in the context of Operation Moonwatch, c. 1957 (Adler Archives)

Just How Dark is the Night?

Changes are coming to Chicago’s nights. The city is replacing streetlights with a new generation of lighting. These new lights will change how our neighborhoods look and how we view the sky. Will new lighting worsen light pollution? How can we help keep the stars visible for Chicago? Learn how the Adler Planetarium is helping measure changes and engage people across the city as they look up.
Just how dark is the night? That’s the question motivating two groups of students in the Adler’s Teen Programs. The high schoolers of Youth Organization for Lights Out (YOLO) at World Language High School (WLHS) and Air Force Academy (AFA) are approaching this question with their feet firmly rooted in their community, measuring the brightness of the night sky in the streets and parks of Little Village and Armour Square neighborhoods. Students in the Far Horizons NITELITE program, however, are taking to the skies: they intend to take an image of every streetlight and every house light in Chicago… from 20 miles up! These two groups of students have an interest in light pollution, and in particular an interest in reducing light pollution! But the first thing to do in confronting an issue is understanding it.
YOLO motivates and empowers teens by exposing them to in-depth knowledge about light pollution in the classroom. They become environmental activists within their own community while earning service-learning hours towards their high school graduation requirement. They learn to collect and analyze sky brightness data using luminance measurement devices, Sky Quality Meters (SQMs), and a smartphone app, Loss of the Night, that allows citizen scientists to be a part of the worldwide understanding of light pollution. To get a taste of what a dark sky is like, the teens attend a field trip to the nearest national lakeshore, Indiana Dunes. For many, this is the first time they’ve seen a starry night sky. They are surprised to view their own readings and compare the difference between city night sky and national park night sky quantitatively. Through this scientific encounter, they are connected through an emotional experience of what a dark night sky could look like back home!
As their neighborhoods transition streetlights from high-pressure sodium (HPS) to light-emitting diode (LED), some of the students have noticed the difference in the night sky in their own neighborhood. Their knowledge of light pollution has made them aware of the city changing light fixtures on the West and South side neighborhoods. Their advocacy has allowed them to understand that, as YOLO participant Jennifer Rubio says, “shielding light posts also needs to happen.”
While the students of YOLO are measuring how much light bounces back from the sky, students in the Far Horizons program are embarking on an adventure to measure how much light is streaming up from Chicago.
These teen volunteers come from all over the city, many having “graduated” from other Adler programs. Far Horizons is the Adler Planetarium’s authentic, hands-on science exploration program. Working closely with Adler staff and volunteer mentors, a group of four Illinois Space Grant Consortium undergraduate interns are designing and planning the Far Horizons NITELITE research mission on high altitude balloons.
Launched from the far western suburbs, the NITELITE mission will float high above nighttime Chicago while its sensitive cameras snap thousands of images. From a vantage point 90,000 feet above Chicago, each image will take in a large swath of the city. In the extreme cold (-50F!) cameras can break and electronics can malfunction. If the winds are wrong the whole balloon may come down in Lake Michigan! And to get sharp images the balloon has to be rock steady, neither ascending nor descending. Everything has to go just right for this to work. Since last year the Far Horizons students have been busy designing and testing equipment, figuring out how to make it all work flawlessly. The result will be the most detailed map of light pollution ever made of the Chicagoland area. Better shielding can direct more light down instead of into the sky. However, the whiter light from LEDs can obscure the stars due to light scattering in the atmosphere. Mapping the lights from above will allow the team to show changes in brightness and color of lighting.
So next time the Sun sets and Chicago’s street lights turn on, spare a thought for Adler’s teen programs. Whether in the neighborhoods of Chicago or from the skies above, Adler teens, college students, and astronomers are working together to make a difference in how we view our city and how well we understand the important problem of light pollution. And as they are, they are learning new things about themselves and how they can change the world!

20,000 Leagues Under the Stars

A year ago, an incredibly common thing happened. A large meteor entered our atmosphere over the Midwest, exploded, and rained down hundreds of meteorites into Lake Michigan. Thousands of meteorites fall to Earth every year; this on paper isn’t all that astounding. What’s even more common is that it landed in water. About 71 percent of Earth is covered in water, so it makes sense a large majority of these meteorite falls would land there. However, this seemingly ordinary event has fueled something truly extraordinary. For the first time ever, teens from the Adler Planetarium, The Field Museum, and Shedd Aquarium are working together to embark on a student-centered, systematic, underwater meteorite hunt dubbed The Aquarius Project. These Chicago teens, and the scientists from each institution, are all working together to detect and recover these submerged space rocks.

You want to inspire a teen? Ask them to lead the charge on an unprecedented, underwater cosmic treasure hunt. At our project kickoff in November, a student asked NASA scientist Marc Fries, “Well, what have you all done before when this happens?” His only answer was, “We haven’t done this before.” When a teen hears a scientist admit to not knowing something, that teen realizes his or her own power to discover something new about the Universe.

The Aquarius Project’s teen-authored, sled design challenge has been shared with more than 450 students from across Chicago at community maker fairs and after school hack events, internationally at the 2017 Mozilla Festival in London, and across the internet through the online design education website of The Chicago Architecture Foundation Discover Design.

Nearly 50 teens from these institutions are currently collaborating digitally to improve on the initial retrieval designs. They are engineering environmental sensors, a magnetic bilge pump retrieval sled mount, and an outfitted meteorite retrieval underwater ROV (an underwater robot!).
This summer, The Aquarius Project will put their ideas to the test.

Behind the Scenes: Kavli Fulldome Lecture Series

On May 9, 2018, Dr. Daniel P. Schrag, Professor of Environmental Science and Engineering at Harvard University, was a guest lecturer as part of our Kavli Fulldome Lecture Series.
Dr. Schrag discussed the increase of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere due to burning coal, oil, and gas, as well as how it represents an unprecedented experiment on planet Earth. Hear more about this planetary experiment from Dr. Schrag in this behind-the-scenes video!