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NASA Builds a Nightmare Room of Solar Fire

A new exhibit throws viewers into the boiling plasma and eerie soundscape of the sun.

NASA/SDO/Duberstein/Wiessinger

Seeing as it's an explosively powerful star that would barbecue anything fleshy within 3 million miles, it's hard to imagine being in the same room as the sun. Yet NASA has simulated that unsettling confrontation with a new exhibit at its Goddard Space Flight Center—a boiling wall of solar fire called "Solarium."

Opening February 10, the permanent show in Greenbelt, Maryland, celebrates both weird art and the Solar Dynamics Observatory, a spacecraft that's been snapping super-high-quality images of the sun for five years. Here's just one of the more bizarre scenes it documented last October, showing our planet's life-giving star looking like a demented Jack-o'-Lantern:

NASA

For "Solarium," NASA employees and a data visualizer have animated these images on the wall to recreate a swollen, swirling portal to space hell. The project might not use all 100 million-plus shots the SDO has collected, but nevertheless the detail is extreme. The team spent about 10 hours of labor making each minute of the raging pseudo-sun.

It doesn't sound violent, however. The audio track accompanying the exhibit, made from real solar data, presents a more ominous, experimental soundscape:

"Solarium" is popping up around the country in various site-specific incarnations (it's also in Tucson right now). As awesome as it'd be to stand sandwiched among three blazing stars, the top image is an artistic rendering, and the D.C.-area show will include only one projection. Still, even the sight of a single captive sun is impressive:

NASA

About the Author

  • John Metcalfe
    John Metcalfe is CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, based in Oakland. His coverage focuses on climate change and the science of cities.