WRAL WeatherCenter Blog

Science on a Sphere? It's Here!

Posted May 20, 2014
Updated September 15, 2015

From the image gallery at the Science on a Sphere web site, a view of the sphere with infrared satellite  data overlaid on an earth map.

By "here," I mean the first Science on a Sphere installation in the WRAL viewing area, and I was fortunate enough to be invited to attend the Opening Gala for the new permanent exhibit at the Imagination Station Science & History Museum in Wilson last week. It was my first time seeing one of these displays in person, and I was very impressed and look forward to seeing it again in the near future!

If you're not familiar with the concept, Science on a Sphere (SOS) is a suspended white sphere more than 5 feet in diameter, with a series of four computer-controlled projectors that cover the sphere with images that are coordinated and scaled to properly reproduce a view of a complete spherical surface. This makes for a terrific way to visualize our planet (or others) and the way that atmospheric, oceanographic and geological processes operate. Here in the WeatherCenter, we're used to seeing maps of clouds, precipitation, pressure fields, winds, etc, mapped onto flat screens. While it's a great way to visualize these things, I found that it is a whole different experience to see it all play out on a three-dimensional sphere that you can walk around. I've included a link to the SOS home page where you can find more background on the system and see where it is available (there a now a little over a hundred places worldwide, including Wilson and the NC Aquarium at Roanoke Island in Manteo.

What really drives an exhibit like this, of course, is content, and various agencies, from NOAA to NASA, and USGS to various universities and some of the museums and science centers that have SOS installed. This has led to development of hundreds of different views and programs that are available. These include historical data (tsunamis, animations of cloud cover through entire hurricane seasons, the drift of our continents since the breakup of Pangea, etc), real-time data (satellite and radar maps, including infrared and visible satellite, water vapor imagery, displays of current wildfire detections from space, current and recent earthquakes, active volcanoes, etc) and projections for the future, including computer model weather forecasts of clouds, winds, precipitations, and pressure, and even a projection that I saw in Wilson last week of how continental drift will likely play out over the next few million years, rendering our current world map unrecognizable.

The sphere can also become our Moon, Mars, Jupiter and other celestial bodies, and just for some fun, at times last week I saw it become a giant basketball, a disco ball and the Darth Vader's Death Star! If you're interested in all the kinds of information that can be presented on the sphere, click the "Datasets" tab on the SOS home page - most datasets have a small preview movie to show what can be seen.

For more about the local installation at Imagination Station, I've included a link to their web site. In addition, keep an eye on WRAL-TV and WRAL.com later this week, as Brian Shrader will be visiting Wilson for a story about the new sphere...

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  • bbruck May 20, 2014

    I saw the first SOS in Boulder Colorado- Way Coooool- terrrific learning tool!