Planetarium show puts our “Violent Universe” on display

Photo by Emma Gray | “Carl,” located in the Staerkel Planetarium, has been Parkland’s star machine for 30 years this month.

Photo by Emma Gray | “Carl,” located in the Staerkel Planetarium, has been Parkland’s star machine for 30 years this month.

Emma Gray


During the weekends of August and September, Parkland’s Staerkel Planetarium presented “Violent Universe,” a show that explores massive cosmic events.

“Violent Universe” is narrated by award-winning English actor Patrick Stewart and features renderings and images of the universe and the cosmic events that take place in it.

The show started with a quick live introduction to the night sky featuring where the moon is in the sky, what planets and notable stars are visible this time of year, and a shout-out to the Geminids meteor shower which happens in December.

This meteor shower is of note because unlike most meteor shows it is associated with an asteroid and not a comet and is often visible in the early evening even with light pollution according to Waylena McCully, production designer at the planetarium.

After the live portion of the show, the film “Violent Universe” began. The film took the audience through the various cosmic events that could possible pose a threat to the planet Earth, including black holes, gamma ray bursts, asteroid impacts, and supernova explosions of stars.

According to Director of the Staerkel Planetarium David Leake, “Violent Universe” was chosen as one of the first digital shows for the planetarium because staff thought it might have public appeal because there is always a new thing, like an asteroid, in the universe being discovered.

“When we went digital in 2010…part of the package was that we got to pick two shows,” said Leake. “We thought [“Violent Universe”] was kind of unique.”

For each event that could happen, the film had a real life example of a time that people had been afraid that it would happen. The most detailed explanation came for the possibility of an asteroid hitting the earth.

There is an asteroid named “99942 Apophis” which caused concern in the early 2000s because of its proximity to Earth and a now debunked prediction that it would impact the earth in 2029. The film suggested that there is a chance that the asteroid would be pulled in by Earth’s gravity during this close encounter, causing it to make impact in the 2030s, but this too has been largely refuted.

“[Scientists] effectively have ruled out the possibility the asteroid Apophis will impact Earth during a close flyby in 2036,” states NASA’s website, referring to researchers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California.

“I tell people when I do the show, ‘could it happen?’ Yes, it’s possible, but the earth is a very small target, very small,” Leake said. “Don’t lose sleep.”

Although some of the predictions that “Violent Universe” made were frightening, the film pointed out that the chance of any of them happening in the lifetime of anyone alive today is incredibly small.

Aside from potentially lethal events that could happen to the Earth, “Violent Universe” also explained the phenomenon of a “guest star” that was visible a millennium ago and appeared to be drawn in a famous cave painting and mentioned in ancient Chinese records. This “guest star” is now thought to be the result of a supernova—an incredibly bright and violent explosion signifying the death of a massive star.

During a supernova, gravity overcomes the pressure created by nuclear fusion in the interior of a star and causes the star to collapse in upon itself; in the subsequent explosion, the star’s outer layers can be ejected away at speeds up to about 20,000 miles per second—approximately a tenth of the speed of light.

A supernova is so bright it can appear brighter than its entire host galaxy with its millions or even billions of stars.

The show focused on how beautiful and awesome our ever-changing universe is despite these catastrophic events occurring.

The show did a good job of infusing a lot of science into a fun show, enjoyable for audience members of all ages. It did however sensationalize unlikely catastrophes in a way that might be frightening to some.

In October the planetarium will be doing live performances of “Prairie Skies,” a show done by its staff that showcases what can be seen in the night sky at the moment.

The beginning of October will also include lights shows of Pink Floyd’s “The Wall,” the return of the “Odyssey,” and “One World, One Sky: Big Bird’s Adventure.”

The planetarium shows two to four shows Friday and Saturday nights. Admission is $6 for adults and $5 for students, seniors, and children. Special pricing is available for multiple shows and groups. Lectures are $2.