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The Webfooted Astronomer - February 2001


"SOLARMAX": Tribute to Our Sun Packs an Emotional Punch

By Laurie Maloney

WHEN I walked out of the IMAX® theater after seeing "SOLARMAX," I was disappointed the sun had already set. I longed to feel its life-giving warmth while being grateful for the distance and magnetosphere that protect us from its violence.

"SOLARMAX" is a 40-minute documentary about our sun playing at the Pacific Science Center's Boeing IMAX® theater. The film begins with a statement explaining that all images of the sun are real and are not created with computer animation. This "what you are about to see is real" statement reverberates through your mind as suddenly a huge boiling, exploding ball of fire and gas appears on screen. It's the sun as you've never seen it before. The story describes humankind's struggle to understand the sun. We begin at the Neolithic "cave of the sun" in Newgrange, Ireland, where the winter solstice is captured with a dagger of sunlight. We see Incas dancing in celebration to the sun god in the lost city of Machu Picchu in the Peruvian Andes. We see the Norse ruins in Qaqortoq, Greenland, left vacant when the verdant island froze at the end of a solar maximum. We see Japan's emperor visit the Naiku Shrine to their sun goddess. And we see scientists and engineers at NASA cheer as they find the lost Solar and Heliospheric Observer (SOHO) and resurrect this portal to the sun.

The film describes the views of Aristotle, Copernicus, and how the Roman Catholic Church imprisoned Galileo and threatened torture if he didn't sign a statement denying his discoveries. The Church has since formally apologized for that period in its history, and operates some of the world's largest and most modern centers for observational astronomy in Tucson, Arizona, and Italy (see

The film also shows the sun's effect on our planet. We see a time-lapsed view of the midnight sun moving along the ecliptic in the arctic circle, and the 1998 solar eclipse from Aruba. The high and low orbital views of the solar winds dancing off the Earth's magnetosphere are stunning, and the quiet beauty of the aurora viewed from the ground belies the violent explosions that cause them. The computer animated graphic of the Earth's magnetosphere being buffeted by the solar winds is sobering. Without that protection, our ozone layer would be gone in an instant. We see an impressive graphic of the thousands of satellites in Earth's orbit, which are threatened by the solar maximum.

The film also examines new ways to tap the energy of the sun without polluting our planet. We take wing on NASA's Pathfinder solar-powered aircraft as it soars to a record height of 80,000 feet and to BP SOLAR's solar energy collector, the world's largest solar energy plant.

But it's the sun that is the star of the show. The images of the boiling, fiery surface and violent solar flares, accompanied by powerful sound effects, are breathtaking. The film uses images captured by SOHO, the TRACE satellite, and the solar telescope observatory at Kitt Peak to generate images of the sun for the giant eight-story high IMAX screen. When Director John Weiley and his crew began developing "SOLARMAX," they received cooperation from the European Space Agency (ESA) and NASA. SOHO has four solar imagers, each of which is controlled by a separate scientific study. ESA and NASA turned over all four solar arrays to the film team to generate the data for the giant screen. The team collected data for 28 days, a full solar revolution.

"SOLARMAX" depicts our sun with its peaceful, life-giving warmth, juxtaposed with the currents of fire exploding with furious energy. It takes us on a journey through humankind's perception of the sun—from a golden chariot carrying a god across the sky to the fiery ball of powerful nuclear energy we know today. This journey of belief, culture, and science has changed the way we perceive the sun, but it has not diminished the mystery.

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