Skylight – How I Produce Nifty Astro-Visualizations Related to Stuff You Can Actually See in the NYC Sky

AAA observers know that there’s a lot more to see in New York City skies than most people assume. To help encourage our fellow New Yorkers to look up at night, I’ve been producing Skylight, the Hayden Planetarium video blog. In general, the content relates to one or more objects that are visible from NYC. If you haven’t yet seen it, and shared it with all of your friends and relatives, please do so!  Now is as good a time as any. Here’s the website:

I’ll wait.

If you’re reading this, I’m assuming that you’ve watched at least 2 episodes, and shared them with all your favorite people.  And you might be wondering, “How is such an incredible work produced?”  As a rule, I don’t reveal trade secrets, but since they’re already listed in the credits (which you’ve seen… twice), I guess the proverbial space-cat is already out of the bag.

Visual content is created using real data and scientifically accurate visualizations from the Digital Universe Atlas (DU). This collection of astronomical data, from exoplanets and stellar orbits, to quasars and all-sky maps in various wavelengths, is curated at the American Museum of Natural History.  DU is loaded into SCISS’s Uniview program, which allows a user to “fly” around the known universe in three dimensions. Uniview and DU are also used to produce the AMNH space shows.  So if you’ve been to one of the planetarium shows, you might notice Skylight’s resemblance, minus the celebrity-narrator. (Partiview, a free version of Uniview, and DU can be downloaded from the Hayden website.)

Uniview has a Producer function that enables flight paths to be recorded, but some flights are tricky, and might take an hour or more to get just right. If you think it’s challenging to navigating the off the grid without GPS, imagine trying to fly around the universe – one wrong move and you’re flung out of the galaxy! Once I’m happy with a flight, I can export the images as frames, just like frames on a film roll. Some flights are exported multiple times, with different settings for the visual parameters, or even different data sets (case in point: More Than Meets the Eye was a single flight, exported with different all-sky maps shown).

The most recent episode about Mars involved more frames than any other.  Partly because getting Mars to stand out again the background stars is harder than it sounds, requiring two sets of frames – one with Mars, and one with everything but Mars.  That, plus 12 years of Earth and Mars orbiting the Sun, and detailed views of Mars for a full Martian year and then some.

Once the frames are imported to Adobe Premier, the long, thrilling process of editing begins. Seriously, I find it thrilling.  Suffice it to say that multiple visual aspects of each scene are adjusted. And of course all annotations and text are created, modified and placed with precision, as much as possible. I used to wonder why anyone would need a 20+ inch display, but since have found myself leaning in towards a full-screen image, squinting, and counting pixels. 

More often than not, after a few hours of editing the visuals, I have a sense of what I want the music to sound like. I don’t write the music (see credits), but I carefully select a piece that fits the theme of the episode, and edit it in Adobe’s Audition.

When I’m out observing with my telescope, time can fly by as I lose myself in the view, hunting for faint fuzzies, and soaking them in.  I similarly lose myself in the editing process, taking hard facts and rough cuts, and weaving them into a narrative that is visually appealing, finding just the right way for the pieces to fit together. Looking, tweaking, adjusting, until… yes!  That’s it!  That’s how I want it to look! It’s like hunting for that distant galaxy, finding the field of view, and then, bam! With averted vision – you’ve got it! You know it when you see it.

Just as observing is partly knowledge and partly an art, the production process is a wonderful blending of facts and creativity, which I find ever so satisfying.  On top of that, the output is an episode that others can enjoy and even learn from. I do hope that you’ll follow the series, and share it with anyone who wonders about what you can actually see in the NYC sky.

Some challenges for all you astro-nerds from the Mars episode (would be spoiler alerts, but you’ve already seen it, right?): 

  • Did you notice that word “opposition” doesn’t occur in the entire episode?  What visuals demonstrate that the close approach and opposition are not simultaneous? 
  • Easter egg: Mars appears near what site on the Moon?