Immersive Venus Exhibit Opens
Credit: National Space Centre

Immersive Venus Exhibit Opens

14/11/2016Written by Kevin Yates

Go behind the scenes with our exhibitions manager to learn the fact and fiction behind our immersive new Venus gallery.

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mascot Telescope Right
Credit: National Space Centre

The National Space Centre’s latest exhibition development focuses on Venus, the brightest planet in the night sky. The thick atmosphere of Venus reflects over two thirds of the Sun’s light back into space. Its resulting brilliance and beauty have guaranteed it a prominent place in cultures around the world and throughout human history. From Homer to Virgil, Blake to Tennyson, poets have celebrated the magnificence of this mysterious world.

Once humans developed the technologies to observe Venus in more detail, we started to think of it as our sister planet. Earth and Venus share a similar size, mass and proximity to the Sun. Further exploration, however, revealed an extremely hostile environment below this facade of similarity. Sulphuric acid rain, crushing pressure, and oven-like temperatures all combine to make the surface of Venus a deadly place for humans to visit.

Runaway Greenhouse

Credit: NASA

Credit: NASA

Much of the story of Venus is the story of its atmosphere. Venus appears to have undergone a runaway greenhouse effect as an ocean that once covered the entire planet began to evaporate under the increasing brightness of our young Sun. This led to an increase in water vapour in the atmosphere, which trapped even more of the Sun’s energy, raising temperatures further. Higher temperatures caused more water to evaporate, perpetuating this cycle, until the ocean had boiled away completely and left the hot, dry, cloudy planet that we see today.

The prospect of a manned mission to the hostile surface of Venus seems highly unlikely, but the possibility of manned floating outposts is the subject of a NASA concept called HAVOC (High Altitude Venus Operational Concept).

The exhibitions team at the National Space Centre loved this idea so much that we used it as the inspiration for an experience that is at the heart of our new Venus exhibition.

Credit: NASA/JPL

Journey Through The Clouds

Journey Through The Clouds
Credit: National Space Centre

Rather than simply presenting visitors with information about the conditions on Venus, we thought it would be far more engaging if we took them on a futuristic journey through the atmosphere and down to the surface. As we developed our ideas it became clear that we needed to create a space in which people felt completely immersed. We decided on a wrap-around projection screen with the curved front section tilted away from viewers, to emphasise the downward direction of travel through the Venusian atmosphere.

The result is a screen shape that we believe is unique in the world. To map a single image onto such a complex shape we partnered with a Ukrainian company called Front Pictures to carefully blend the light from four different projectors. The final immersive touch involved our in-house team designing and fabricating a vibrating floor so that visitors can actually feel the spacecraft as it plunges through the atmosphere of Venus.

Science Fact And Fiction

Science Fact And Fiction
Credit: NSC Creative
Science Fact And Fiction
Credit: NSC Creative

There are three key science facts that we wanted to highlight during the journey down to Venus’ surface:

1) the existence of poisonous sulphuric acid clouds high in Venus’ atmosphere

2) the dramatic rise in temperature as the surface of Venus gets closer

3) the fact that the atmospheric pressure on the surface of Venus is a crushing 92 times higher than on Earth

To help us share these science facts we’ve enlisted three drones that play a central role in our story.

The scenario is that we have just separated from a space station orbiting Venus. We perform a de-orbit burn and enter the Venusian atmosphere. As we approach a lighter-than-air research station called Myrtle City, our craft prepares to inflate its gas bags and transform into an airship.

But at this point the inflation mechanism fails and the craft continues to descend. The spacecraft is equipped for an emergency landing and capable of withstanding the harsh surface environment for up to 24 hours. But the faulty inflation mechanism prevents the landing section from separating from the rest of the airship. A series of three maintenance drones are dispatched to try to release the mechanism, but the drones are only designed to operate at higher altitudes. The first drone is destroyed as it passes through sulphuric acid clouds and its motors are quickly corroded. The second drone overheats as the external temperature rises rapidly with descent. The final drone is crushed as we approach the surface and the atmospheric pressure quickly climbs.

Will our space craft survive? You’ll have to take the journey to find out!

More Than Just Facts

More Than Just Facts
Credit: National Space Centre

The exhibition also features a large, interactive data screen, which includes a Venus fact file, image gallery, news feed, and missions database.

Visitors will see a lot more of these data screens around our galleries as we continue to update exhibits. We think these screens enable visitors to quickly find the information that interests them, without being overwhelmed by text on graphic display boards. They also allow us to easily update content as new discoveries are made.

Ultimately, the wealth of information available online has transformed the role of the science centre. Our aim is not to provide encyclopaedic coverage of a subject, but to offer experiences that stimulate interest and a desire to continue exploring beyond the visit. We hope this new Venus exhibition will help achieve this goal.

The Venus exhibit reopened to visitors on 8 November 2016, along with a newly-renovated Mercury exhibit featuring the upcoming BebiColombo mission.

About the Author: Kevin Yates is the Exhibitions Development Manager at the National Space Centre.

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