By Published: Jan. 30, 2020

xFiske Planetarium Director John Keller dips a toe into a visiualization of the surface of the sun while several students look on. (Credit: Briana Ingermann)

Visitors to Fiske Planetarium will soon get the chance to feel like they’re walking on the sun.

Next week, the CU Boulder planetarium will debut two new exhibits that explore the inner workings of Earth’s favorite star. They include an installation that lets anyone stroll through a glowing archway made up of coronal “loops”—or the ribbons of blazing-hot plasma that leap from the surface of the sun and can occasionally send solar flares hurtling toward Earth. 

 If you go

Who: Free and open to the public
What: Collaboration Showcase, featuring exhibits and screening of Climate Change in Our Backyard
When: Tuesday, Feb. 4, 5–6 p.m.
Where: Fiske Planetarium

The exhibits, which incorporate animations and a lot of LED lights, are the brainchildren of CU Boulder graduate and undergraduate students who worked together across a wide range of fields. 

“It was a really great experience to meet people from so many backgrounds,” said Minso Kim, a PhD student in the Department of Critical Media Practices who took part in that effort. “Everyone was so enthusiastic to share their talents.”

While the exhibits are already up and ready to view, they’ll get their official launch at an event open to the public on Feb. 4 from 5–6 p.m. Collaborators on the effort included CU Boulder’s ATLAS Institute and the National Solar Observatory in Boulder.

That debut will coincide with the first-ever screening of a second project from Fiske: a full-dome film called Climate Change in Our Backyard. This roughly 20-minute feature probes the science behind climate change, its impacts close to home and strategies for addressing those threats. The film was produced in collaboration with students and faculty from the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research (INSTAAR) and the departments of Geography, Geological Sciences and Astrophysical and Planetary Sciences

Both projects were funded by the CU Boulder Outreach Awards, which help connect research, teaching and creative work with communities in Colorado and beyond.

“These installations are compelling in a different way than a lot of other science exhibits because they really combine science and art,” said Briana Ingermann, the education programs manager for Fiske. “I hope that they will inspire visitors to look up information on solar flares and much more.”

This hanging cube uses LED lights to give viewers a look at the Aurora Borealis, or northern lightsThe "Solar Arcade" lets visitors walk underneath the sun's coronal loops

Top: This hanging cube uses LED lights to give visitors a look at the Aurora Borealis, or northern lights; bottom: The "Solar Arcade" helps visitors to explore the connection between the sun's magnetic fields and potentially dangerous solar flares. (Credits: Briana Ingermann)

Blinking lights

They’re also the products of years of hard work.

The first of the new solar installations, for example, hangs from the ceiling in Fiske’s lobby. It’s a cube made up of 4,100 LED lights that were soldered together with help from SparkFun Electronics. This company, which is based in Colorado, was founded by CU Boulder alumnus Nathan Seidle. 

It’s a colorful lesson in physics: Watch the cube long enough, and you can see colorful flares erupt from the surface of the sun, then go crashing into Earth’s magnetic field. 

“This is an epic project,” said John Keller, director of the Fiske Planetarium.

Keller explained that the idea of the cube first emerged out of a one-of-a-kind class held in spring 2019. The course, called “Studio: Design an Immersive Science Exhibit,” included instructors Keller and Ingermann from Fiske, Mark Gross, Annie Bruns and Wayne Seltzer from ATLAS and Claire Raftery from the National Solar Observatory.

It brought together 20 undergraduate students from several disciplines and set them on an unusual charge—to come up with fun ways for people of all ages to learn about the sun. 

Graduate student Kim was one of the team members who worked on the second of those exhibits, an installation dubbed the Solar Arcade. She said her group wanted the project to dive into the strange behavior of the sun’s contorting magnetic fields. 

And what better way to do that than to let visitors walk among those field lines on the surface of the sun itself?

“I’m interested in making people feel like they’re somewhere else,” Kim said. “That can mean giving people the chance to be in an impossible place.”

Sharing ideas

You can’t miss the group's own impossible place in the middle of Fiske’s lobby. It’s the exhibit that looks a bit like a dance rave version of a garden walkway.

Kim added that the final product couldn’t have come together without the work of the whole team, which included five students studying everything from communications to computer science.

Keller agreed, noting that the new installations are proof of what students can do when they work together.

“I was most impressed with the level of collaboration and idea-sharing from the members of the class,” Keller said. “It was a cross-pollination of ideas that was so much richer than anything we imagined.”