Hubble 3D and the Baltimore waterfront.

May 08, 2010

Last Tuesday I scored a couple of tickets at work to reserve seats at the Maryland Science Center to watch Hubble 3D in their IMAX theatre. Navigating rush hour traffic in Baltimore is actually much easier than the DC Beltway because the cars aren't nearly as densely packed, but if you don't know your way around already you're in for a rough time. At any rate, Lyssa and I got there in time to meet up with Kash, walk halfway around the building to find the front door (which faces the Baltimore waterfront) and head inside. We got our VIP bracelets and goofed off for a while in the kid's exhibits before heading down to the movie-dinner spread they had set out for us. Popcorn, cookies, hot dogs - about what you'd expect if you were at a real movie theatre. I passed on the whole shebang in favor of the cheese trays but their cookies were pretty good, I have to admit. Around 1900 EST5EDT they called us into the IMAX theatre to sit through a short presentation on the history of the Hubble Space Telescope before the 3D movie began.

Hubble's had something of a checkered past; not long after it was launched and brought online it was discovered that the mirror which focuses light onto the cameras was warped, and thus distorted the images in subtle ways. Image processing hacks and eventually a hardware upgrade after almost three years of service were required to clear up the pictures. I have to be honest, I could not tell where the amazingly high resolution images from the HST ended and CG extrapolations began (if indeed any image synthesis was done for the purposes of the movie). The HST transmits something on the order of three or four petabytes of data every day if I recall correctly, so it would not surprise me one iota if all of the astronomical imagery in the movie came from Hubble, with only the animations being added after the fact. Pictures of the Orion Nebula that seemed to show the depths of the region and the stellar nursery within astounded us, and the deep space field shots that went from the odd bright pinpoint of light to a veritable ocean of heavenly bodies radiating in all electromagnetic spectra made us realize just how much is really out there. If you look up at the night sky on the outskirts of DC you'll be fortunate to see a scant fraction of what's really out there. The number of confirmed galaxies that the Hubble has spotted is truly humbling (3000 and growing), and the estimated number given the evidence we have now?

It brought a tear to the eye, I don't mind telling you. Makes one a bit homesick, in fact.

The rest of the movie was made up of footage shot before and during three of the Space Shuttle missions involved: Hubble being placed into orbit by STS-31, a first round of repairs made by the crew of STS-61, and the final maintenance run by STS-125 almost a year ago. Astronauts training in a four story deep swimming pool to simulate microgravity. The shuttle launches themselves; mission control during the missions; spacewalk after spacewalk to replace and install components. The odd glitch in the mission when a retaining bar got stuck and had to be broken loose. Figuring out how to remove a panel which had never been designed to be removed during the mission... it's all there. It's inspiring to watch; that we're capable of such achievements gives me hope for the human race, that the species will eventually set aside its petty disagreements and traverse the gulfs of space that separate the stars.

I don't know what else I can really say about Hubble 3D. Not a few of us, myself included, walked out of that theatre feeling choked up. If you get to see it in your area - Baltimore, New York City, Minneapolis, Pittsburgh - drop everything and go see this movie. It's amazing.

Afterward the three of us walked along the waterfront to a restaurant overlooking the water called Tir na Nog. I'll write up a review of it later, but for now have some pictures of the skyline at night.