UCT/IDIA Visualization Laboratory:
Iziko Planetarium

In partnership between UCT Astronomy and the (IDIA), a laboratory for visual analytics has been created to develop and test hardware and software solutions for interactive visualization of large astronomical data sets. Central to the Visualization Lab is the Iziko Planetarium & Digital Dome, located in the heart of Cape Town. The fulldome facility is optimal for study and investigation of the largest-area data sets, including the Cosmic Web. See the Poster


Digital Upgrade: Planning for the upgrade began in late 2014, precipitated by a fateful meeting between M. Cluver, T. Jarrett, and T. van der Heyde (DST) in which the concept of a University Research Consortium was hatched. Pooling resources and marshalling energy, the consortium of the University of Cape Town, University of the Western Cape, and the Cape University of Technology (with Stellenbosch Univ. sitting on the fence) was formed under the direction of Prof. M. Cluver. A technical committee was then formed, including planetarium experts from the USA (Dr. Mark Subbarao) and Netherlands (Shawn Laatsch), chaired by T. Jarrett (UCT), that designed the digital upgrade. One year later construction began, led by Theo Ferriera (Iziko Museum) refurbishing the theatre (new raised floor, and newly-skinned dome), and the projector system under the direction of SkySKAN. The next level of effort (and challenge) will be to integrate volumentric data, including velocity cubes.

System: The R30M digital upgrade, full dome theatre has the key features: six Sony 4K Laser projectors (creating a total of 8K pixel projection), two computer clusters -- one for production and show, and the other for research --, 5.1 Surround Sound, optimal reflecting dome, raised floor and new control center. The projectors can be driven by either cluster. Each cluster has 12 client computers and one master computer, as well as a sound computer. Each computer has a NVIDIA P6000 GPU, which provides more than enough power to render our large data sets on the fly.

The primary software that is used to ingest data and drive the projectors is SkySKAN's Digital Sky: Dark Matter (DS-DM), which is capable of traditional planetarium functionality as well as modern data exploration. Researchers use their own cluster, allowing them to optimize setups and saved work areas without disrupting the production/show computers. The cluster is so powerful that may also be used for running cosmological computer simulations (which was one of the original design drivers for the system). Although not yet in place, there will be a fully automated backup system to ensure secure backup of the data sets.

Research: Since the first light of the digital dome upgrade, research activities in 2017 have involved learning the complex DS-DM system, data ingest, preliminary exploration, workshops and outreach. The data sets that have been integrated into the system include: (1) Two Micron Redshift Survey (2MRS), (2) 2MASS Photometric Redshift Survey (2MPz), (3) WISE study of the South Galactic Pole, (4) GAMA-WISE Cosmic Web, (5) Cosmos multi-wavelength 3D catalogue, (6) GAIA Data-Release-1 of accurate 3D star positions, (7) CLUES cosmological simulation (as well as the Illustris version), and (8) the 2M++ local universe density field. See the images in the Gallery for examples of these data sets.

From outside of the Milky Way, fly to the center of the universe (that would be Earth in this case). This mp4 movie depicts galaxies in 3D, color-coded by their 'clustering' properties; the Milky Way first passes by (note the spiral arms and central halo/bulge), and then down to the Solar System and Earth.


Facility Access: The Iziko Planetarium and Digital Dome is a facility available to researchers from the Consortium (UCT, UWC and CPUT) for visualising research data on a 360-degree display. Researchers in fields as diverse as geology, climate and earth science, medical science, town planning, animation and fine art -- as well as planetary and solar system science -- could benefit from the facility. Primary access to the Planetarium for researchers is every Monday, 8am to 5pm. There are also slots every day from 3pm to 5pm. We anticipate in the future (late-2018) that there will be after-hours access.
The software that drives the Planetarium projector and theatre systems has a somewhat complex user interface, which requires training to learn how to: (1) basic operations, (2) ingest data and (3) exploit the full capabilities of the system. It is therefore necessary to have training and liaison interaction. Currently, the only expert users are Prof. Tom Jarrett (UCT Astro) and Prof. Michelle Cluver (UWC). They hold workshops and Data-to-Dome events to exhibit the system and how it may be used by Consortium researchers. In the future, there will be a designated liaison to work with researchers to train and ingest data.