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The Science Behind the New Sudekum Planetarium Laser System

3/21/22

The Science Behind the New Sudekum Planetarium Laser System

By Bill McClain, Planetarium Educator

Laser Show

Laser shows in the Sudekum Planetarium are a mesmerizing and fun way to see laser technology fuse with the incredible technology of the planetarium. But now, the laser system technology has significantly increased!

In the past and even currently, the main limiting factor in laser show technology has been the scanners. Basically, scanners are fancy motors that move tiny mirrors on the X and Y axis. Just like those X and Y graphs from school, the mirrors move the laser beam from point to point- very fast. One motor moves on the X axis, and the other moves on the Y axis. These motors get hot from fast motion and friction and the heat changes the properties of the metals involved (expansion and contraction) which limits how fast and long jumping to various points can take.

Many lower-end scanners can scan up to about 15,000 points per second. This may sound like a lot, but for a smooth moving or flowing pattern to be created, you need a lot of points – and they need to be scanned in rapid succession. So, 15K is going to create a lot of flickering as each frame of an image gets scanned. More efficient scanners can scan upwards of 30K to 40K points per second. However, complex and larger images will still cause even those scanners to start heating up and, therefore, losing their quality as they are not able to accurately scan each point in order.

The new system in the Sudekum Planetarium, designed by Pangolin Systems in Florida, is now what is currently the best scanning system available. In their Saturn scanners, the coils in each motor are wound by hand, so that the wires are perfectly aligned. In addition, internal improvements involving the case, metals, and mirrors have enabled a complete redesign of how the motor coils operate and dissipate the heat. The end result is a scanner that runs “cooler, stronger and faster.” With a digitally optimized signal amplifier for the X and Y signals, these scanners can run easily at 90K points per second. Some images can actually be set to scan at 120K! This means laser images have less flicker and more complex and beautiful imagery can be created.

Laser Show

But, our new full-dome laser system doesn’t just have the best scanners. That black box next to our Chiron star projector has a few more surprises.  Actually, 14 more surprises!

In addition to lightning-fast scanning, the crew at Audio Visual Imagineering in Orlando, FL have developed the “Skylase FX” laser system. The black box may look the same on the outside, but there’s a completely new system under the hood. Using a fast-switching system, 14 different optical effects can be placed in front of the laser images before they get projected onto the dome. Through several different diffraction gratings – which are optical components with a periodic structure that diffracts light into several beams that travel in different directions, these effects can make the laser images become swirling waves of light, magnified, or fuzzy. This adds a brand-new dimension to older shows as well as new shows being developed in the Sudekum Planetarium. The new system can also be used to add laser effects to other programs like live music or other special programs under the dome.

We also have two more laser projectors. You may have gone to a concert that used laser beam effects that project through the air with the addition of theatrical haze above the audience. These colorful beam effects add another dimension to the planetarium laser shows.

If you’ve attended a laser show in the Sudekum Planetarium before, you may think you’ve been there and done that but these technological changes create a new experience worth revisiting. As we update some shows and create new ones, they will all benefit from the technology upgrade. Every laser show will now utilize the optical effects and beams. Older shows may still run at 30K, but watch for new productions being rolled out that take advantage of the high-speed scanning, like our new “Laser Prince”, “The Colours and the Lasers – Music of Foo Fighters”, and our newly updated “ElectroPop.” 

What’s coming up? We can’t give it all away, but one show may have you putting on your red shoes to dance the blues!


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