The Grand Tour of the Universe

Of the many tours you can take on a visit to New York City, there is nothing remotely like “The Grand Tour of the Universe” at the American Museum of Natural History’s Hayden Planetarium.

This tour — more like a 3D ride you might find at Disneyworld or an IMAX movie on steroids — features breathtaking images of stars and space projected onto the Grand Dome of the Planetarium. Viewers are treated to a travel experience unlike any other, “flying” around our solar system, across the Milky Way and then, well, to infinity and beyond.

The visualizations are based on something called the Digital Universe Atlas, the most comprehensive and accurate 3D map of the universe. Developed by the Hayden Planetarium, the Digital Universe incorporates data from dozens of organizations worldwide.

With Jillian Bellovary, a professor of physics from nearby Queensborough Community College, at the controls, our tour guide, Brian Abbott, the assistant director of the Hayden Planetarium, narrates the journey from earth to the edge of the observable universe.

“If you get dizzy,” warns Abbott, “just close your eyes.”

The tour’s first stop begins here at home, the third planet from the Sun, Earth. As if travelling in a virtual spacecraft, we are able to instantly shift perspective — one moment looking from Earth to the edge of the solar system, then soaring out to Pluto to look back at Earth.

Next stop: The Milky Way. “In the night sky you can see about 9,500 stars, northern and southern hemisphere,” says Abbot.  But we now know that the one star we know the best, the Sun, is one of about 100 billion stars in the Milky Way Galaxy.

As casually as you might say “Let’s pull over at the next rest stop” Abbott says “Let’s just fly out of our star system.”

Abbott travels outside the Milky Way to show us that just as the earth orbits the Sun, the Sun has its own orbit around the center of its galaxy. “It takes about 225 million years for the Sun to go around once,” he said. “So, we’re 22 galactic years old.”

Venturing even farther out, Abbott outlines a 3D image of the Milky Way, revealing a giant spherical quality. “Galaxies make stars and stars make light,” he says. “So, the Milky Way is not just a disk. It emits a halo of light.”

As we whiz by the “galactic suburbs” Abbott points out orbiting globular clusters, not to mention dark matter and dark energy.

Even the supplest mind is challenged to comprehend the sheer scope and size of the universe. Consider the galaxy that is closest to ours. As Abbott guides us to the Andromeda Galaxy he points out that “it is the farthest thing you can see with your naked eye. In a really dark sky it’s a little smudge.” In the calculus of cosmic distance, this ‘next door neighbor’ is 2.5 million light years away. That’s 23.6 million trillion kilometers.

Reminding us that everything we see is still evolving, Abbott pauses to warn that Andromeda and the Milky Way are “on a collision course and will merge in three to four billion years into one giant galaxy” which some have nicknamed “Milkomeda” or “Milkdromeda.”

As the tour continues we see that, like Russian nesting eggs, the Milky Way and Andromeda galaxies fit into a massive cluster of 1,500 galaxies called the Virgo cluster. Though 50 to 60 million light years away, Abbott calls it “our nearest downtown, where all the action is happening.”

It’s a big universe. And the ability to conceptualize it is a very recent development. Consider the age-old question of whether there are other planets like earth.

“We couldn’t see any evidence of other planets until the mid-nineties,” said Abbott. “But today we know of about 3,800 stars that have planets. A lot of them are nearby.”

The number of known planets is about to increase exponentially, according to Abbott. TESS, a two-year survey mission that will focus on the discovery of exoplanets in orbit around the brightest stars in the sky, is the next step in the search for planets outside of our solar system, including those that could support life.

TESS will survey 200,000 of the brightest stars near the sun to search for transiting exoplanets. TESS launched on April 18, 2018, aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. “Scientists estimate there are 600 million planets in Milky Way,” says Abbott.

One of the big mysteries of the universe, said Abbott, is how did we go from our Big Bang baby picture of “protons and electrons bouncing like a fog” to the large-scale structure of the universe we see today.

As we reach the outer limits of the universe we fly beyond quasars — active galaxies with a huge dark hole at the center. “These stretch way out to the farthest things we can see.” Now the dome is filed with what appear to be thousand points of light. “Every point you see is a galaxy,” he said.

Far from where we began our tour, we are looking back 10 billion years, from a very early time in the universe. We have reached the farthest light: microwave light that can only be measured with a microwave telescope.

“So, I’ve taken you to the edge,” says Abbott, “and Jillian is going to fly us back home.”

It was quite a tour.