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Look up!

November 28th, 2016

The night sky has inspired humans for millennia, and you can see its effect on some of Western art’s most famous painters in our current exhibition, Mystical Landscapes: Masterpieces from Monet, Van Gogh and more.

Huge waves are sculpted in this two-lobed nebula some 3000 light-years away in the constellation of Sagittarius. This warm planetary nebula harbours one of the hottest stars known and its powerful stellar winds generate waves 100 billion kilometres high. The waves are caused by supersonic shocks, formed when the local gas is compressed and heated in front of the rapidly expanding lobes. The atoms caught in the shock emit the spectacular radiation seen in this image.

“Huge waves are sculpted in this two-lobed nebula some 3000 light-years away in the constellation of Sagittarius.” Text credit: ESA (European Space Agency) Image credit: ESA/Garrelt Mellema (Leiden University, the Netherlands)

This holiday season, the AGO invites families to explore the landscapes above us in our unique Pop-Up Planetarium. Designed for children of all ages (and adults!) and presented in partnership with the University of Toronto, this unique interactive experience was created especially for the AGO by astronomer Dr. Ilana MacDonald. We caught up with her this week to ask what we can expect to see – and what’s changed in the sky since Van Gogh painted his very first starry night.


Dr Ilana MacDonald, University of Toronto Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics.

AGO: Can you describe the experience of the Pop-up Planetarium for us?
Dr. MacDonald: Visitors will sit inside an inflatable dome, while a powerful projector displays astronomical images onto the dome’s walls. Our software allows us to not only show the night sky, but to explore our solar system, galaxy, and the rest of the universe. During the Mystical Landscapes – inspired show we will be exploring various astronomical mystical landscapes, from the surface of Mars to the supersonic gas of the Calabash Nebula.

AGO: What inspired you to create this presentation?
Dr. MacDonald: This planetarium show was inspired by Mystical Landscapes and will explore the many amazing landscapes found throughout our universe. We’ll explore things that only can be seen with scientific probes and the most advanced telescopes. These are the views that we imagine artists like Van Gogh would have loved to see.


“As Saturn’s northern hemisphere summer approaches, the shadows of the rings creep ever southward across the planet.” Caption & Image Courtesy: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

AGO: What is about the night sky that continues to instill us with wonder?
Dr. MacDonald: It’s our window to the rest of the universe. When we look up at the stars, we are gazing at objects trillions of kilometres away, whose light has been travelling for years (and sometimes hundreds to thousands of years!) to reach our eyes. There is so much about the universe that we still have to learn, and it definitely inspires a sense of awe to think of how small our own place is in the cosmos.

AGO: What has been the biggest change to the night sky since Van Gogh painted it in 1880s?
Dr. MacDonald: Definitely the biggest change since Van Gogh’s time is light pollution. When he observed the stars in the late 19th century, the only lights illuminating the night were gas lamps. With the advent of electrified cityscapes, the stars in the sky have faded from view, and many people who live in urban areas have never seen the night sky in all its glory.

AGO: What has been the biggest leap forward since then when it comes to astronomy?
Dr. MacDonald: Since the 19th century, our understanding of the universe has expanded vastly. In Van Gogh’s time, astronomers had just begun to measure the distances to nearby stars with telescopes. By the early 20th century, we had a pretty good idea of the scale of our own Milky Way galaxy, but the consensus was that the disk of stars surrounding us was the entire universe. In the late 1920s, an American astronomer named Edwin Hubble made the groundbreaking discovery that there were other galaxies millions of light years away, and that these galaxies were receding from us, implying that the universe had a beginning. This was the birth of the Big Bang theory.

The Pop-Up Planetarium will run daily from December 26, 2016 to January 8, 2017, from 11 am to 3 pm with presentations every 30 minutes. Timed-entry tickets are on sale now and are $5 for adults, $3 for youth ages 6-17 and free for children under five.

Presented in partnership with the University of Toronto Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics.

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