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APA Website Feature: The Iziko Planetarium and Digital Dome

Visit us at www.iziko.org.za/museums/planetarium or vislab.idia.ac.za

Nestled in the heart of Cape Town, South Africa, the Iziko Planetarium and Digital Dome (IPDD) stands side-by-side with the Iziko South African Museum overlooking the Company’s Gardens.  With its 15.2-m dome and capacity for 144 viewers, it is currently one of the four major planetaria in South Africa. After being established in its current location in 1987, the digital dome underwent a major 8K digital upgrade in mid-2017.  Since then, it has catered to a wide range of audiences,  with a public show program, a dedicated schools’ program (adapted to the national school curriculum), an experimental art film festival, and an active research program.  Indeed, it is one of the few planetaria in the world that is actively involved in research visualisation, lead by a consortium of local universities and the IDIA Visualisation Laboratory (https://vislab.idia.ac.za/)


Left: Table Mountain watches over the Iziko Planetarium and Digital Dome, a member of the Iziko group of museums. Picture credit: Future Cape Town. 

Right: Dr Sally Macfarlane demonstrates  some of the research datasets currently installed on the IPDD  to first year university Physics students. Picture credit: Gregor Leigh

The schools’ and public programmes (https://www.iziko.org.za/shows) offer daily shows, reaching around 100 000 people a year.  However, since the upgrade, there has been very little local (and therefore relevant) digital fulldome content highlighting achievements in both sciences and the arts in Sub-Saharan Africa.  In order to begin to remedy this, a 24-minute fulldome film was produced in 2020, promoting South Africa’s astronomy facilities and research while celebrating its astronomical heritage. Towards the end of the year, the film, called ‘Rising Star’, will be freely distributed online to both national and international audiences, and translated audios will be encouraged for greater global accessibility. The digital dome space of the IPDD has also proven to be an intriguing stage for artistic expression and experimentation. In 2019, the UCT Centre for Curating the Archive (CCA) in collaboration with the IPDD hosted ‘Under the Dome’, a first of it’s kind experimental film festival. Nine short (~10-minute) fulldome films were locally produced over ~5 months and were presented during the festival. The festival was well-attended and was ultimately a success.

On the research side, the IDIA Visualisation Laboratory (in collaboration with the IPDD) has made it a primary goal in recent years to update old-fashioned preconceptions about planetaria and provide an up-to-date, modern window into the local scientific research world. This includes innovative research into the effective use of the planetarium as an educational tool in undergraduate studies, as well as the pioneering use of the dome space to visualise and interact with large multidisciplinary research datasets. Indeed, the immersive and multi-sensory nature of the IPDD make it optimal for the investigation of the largest-area datasets, including 3-D catalogues of the Cosmic Web and volumetric data rendering. This facility is also ideal for the education of large groups and, as such, is an active member of Data2Dome: an initiative which aims to present up-to-date science research to the public within the planetarium space (http://data2dome.org/). 

Left: Prof. T. Jarrett and PhD student Christina Hall ‘fly’ through the 2MASS Galaxy Redshift Catalogue, an infrared-based all-sky survey containing over 1 million galaxies. Each point is a galaxy (inhabited by billions of stars) color-coded based on their clustering properties. Picture credit: Stephane Courteau. 

Right: Volumetric rendering of a mouse brain, as projected onto the dome  (B.Loos &  A. Du Toit).

By producing local digital dome content through locally produced films, tailored schooling programs, art film festivals and innovative research work, the Iziko Planetarium and Digital Dome hopes to create a greater sense of pride in Africa’s scientific and artistic achievements. In doing so, we aim to work toward harnessing a more positive, cohesive and understanding social environment.