Science On a Sphere

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SOS in the Planet Theater at the NOAA Earth System Research Laboratory in Boulder, CO
The Canyon World in the Science On a Sphere Theater at Grand Canyon Visitor Center.

Science On a Sphere (SOS) is a spherical projection system created by NOAA. It presents high-resolution video on a suspended globe rather than a flat screen, with the aim of better representing global phenomena.[1] Animated images of atmospheric storms, climate change, and ocean temperature can be shown on the sphere to explain these complex environmental processes. SOS systems are most frequently installed in science museums, universities, zoos, and research institutions, although new and novel uses for these systems in a variety of presentation spaces and contexts are starting to emerge.

The system is installed in more than 100 locations worldwide.[2]


SOS uses many off-the-shelf hardware and software components combined into an innovative format.[3] A spherical screen covered in ordinary latex paint hangs suspended in the center of a projection space. The screen is inert; it neither moves nor has any electronic parts. Surrounding the screen are four video projectors, positioned at ninety degree increments around the screen. Each projector is responsible for one quadrant of screen space. One CPU with three graphics cards (two for the projector output and one for the user interface) is used to control the system. The custom written SOS software runs on Linux.[4]

SOS was invented by Alexander E. MacDonald, the director of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Earth System Research Laboratory in Boulder, CO, and OAR Deputy Assistant Administrator for the NOAA Research Laboratories and Cooperative Institutes.[5] MacDonald devised the original idea for Science On a Sphere in 1995 as part of other data visualization work he oversaw in what was the former NOAA Forecast Systems Laboratory. A small but highly motivated and inventive team of NOAA staff led by chief designer David Himes wrote the SOS software and developed the SOS hardware and system architecture. This work enabled MacDonald's invention to move out from the laboratory and into performance spaces. A patent was awarded to NOAA for Science On a Sphere in August 2005, with MacDonald credited as the inventor.[6] General system architecture and configuration specifications are as follows.

The sphere

The carbon fiber sphere is 68 inches (1.7 m) in diameter. Other sphere sizes are possible, but would require custom engineering (at additional cost to the SOS recipient). The 68" sphere with a single seam at the equator weighs under 50 pounds (23 kg).[7] The sphere is attached to the ceiling or suspension structure with a three-point suspension system to hold the sphere in place and reduce lateral movement.[8] If the sphere moves, the images become un-focused. The cables are designed for strength yet small enough to blend into the background.

The projectors

The system requires high quality, bright, long duty cycle projectors generally permanently installed in board rooms and high end home theaters rather than smaller portable and consumer models to endure the requirements of 8–10 hours per day, 7 days per week of most public displays. System designers also recommend a minimum of 3500 lumens.[9] The projectors used in the NC Aquarium installation use 4 Sony VPL-FE40 projectors rated at 4000 ANSI lumens costing over $4000 each.[10]

The computer hardware

The computer hardware used for SOS is constantly evolving based on what is available on the market. The newest configuration uses one Ubuntu linux computer with NVIDIA GeForce graphics cards, a Wii Remote, and an iPad app to control the Science On a Sphere.[11] Previous versions used five Red Hat Linux computers.

SOS data details

The majority of SOS assets are so-called "datasets". Originally conceived as a video system for showing space based collections of Earth data, SOS has grown in its utility. The majority of data that traditionally appears on the SOS screens concerns the Earth, either from near-real-time data acquisition systems, or from processed remote sensing platforms. But recent interest and growth in different kinds of media have started to broaden that library.[12] There are currently over 250 datasets that can be shown on the sphere, including real-time infrared satellite images, Mars, real-time Earthquakes, an ocean acidification model, and many more. The entire catalog can be found online here:

An equirectangular projection of the Earth; the standard parallel is the equator.

The data format for SOS datasets is the equidistant cylindrical equatorial projection, also referred to as equirectangular projection, as shown by the map to the right. Textures, or single images, such as Mars or the Moon, are jpeg or png files that have a minimum resolution of 2048x1024 and a preferred resolution of 4096x2048. Animations, such as a 24-hour air traffic loop or real-time weather over the course of a week, are mp4 files that have a preferred resolution of 2048x1024.[13]

All of the datasets for Science On a Sphere are available online in the SOS Dataset Catalog.[14] The datasets are divided into six main categories: Land, Ocean, Atmosphere, Astronomy, Models and Simulations, and Extras. The Extras category contains all the narrated movies highlighted below. The datasets come from many different organizations, including NOAA, NASA, NREL, universities, and science museums. Many of the sites that have SOS are creating new custom content for their site.

SOS User's Collaborative Network

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration NOAA supports the use of spherical display systems, such as SOS, in public exhibits as part of a focused effort to increase environmental literacy. The institutions that currently have NOAA's Science On a Sphere, as well as other partners who are creating content and educational programming for these systems, have formed a collaborative network . The SOS Users Collaborative Network is supported by NOAA’s Office of Education (OEd) and the NOAA Earth System Research Laboratory (ESRL) to provide a mechanism for these institutions to work together to maximize the effectiveness of the SOS system as an Earth system science education platform.[15]

Network meetings and workshops

NOAA’s Office of Education (OEd) hosts workshops of the SOS Users Collaborative Network in order to allow Network to inform NOAA on investment and development decisions related to the SOS system and to provide a mechanism for member institutions to work together to maximize the effectiveness of SOS as an Earth system science education platform. These workshops, which are typically 2.5 days in duration, provide a valuable opportunity for members of the Network to meet in person to focus on key issues. Past meetings have included:

SOS evaluation

The User's Collaborative Network is currently involved in a program-wide evaluation of the effectiveness of exhibits featuring spherical display systems. Many of the SOS sites have conducted their own evaluation reports as well to better understand the educational impacts of Science On a Sphere.[23]


Science On a Sphere is installed in science museums, zoos and aquariums, and visitors centers around the world.[24] New sites are continually being added:

Site Location Date
NOAA's Earth System Research Laboratory Boulder, CO
Experience Music Project and Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame Seattle, WA May, 2004
Nauticus - The National Maritime Center Norfolk, VA May, 2005
Science Museum of Minnesota St. Paul, MN Jan, 2006
Bernice P. Bishop Museum Honolulu, HI Feb, 2006
The Tech Museum of Innovation San Jose, CA Mar, 2006
Maryland Science Center Baltimore, MD Apr, 2006
NASA Goddard Space Flight Center Visitors Center Greenbelt, MD Apr, 2006
Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary Alpena, MI Jun, 2006
Imiloa Astronomy Center of Hawaii Hilo, HI Nov, 2006
James Madison University Harrisonburg, VA Nov, 2006
McWane Science Center Birmingham, AL Feb, 2007
Fiske Planetarium and Science Center at the University of Colorado Boulder, CO Mar, 2007
Orlando Science Center Orlando, Florida May, 2007
Museum of Science and Industry Chicago, IL Jun, 2007
NOAA's National Severe Storms Laboratory Norman, OK Aug, 2007
Ocean Explorium New Bedford, MA Dec, 2007
Clark Planetarium Salt Lake City, UT Mar, 2008
Lawrence Hall of Science Berkeley, CA Apr, 2008
National Museum of Natural Science Taichung, Taiwan, R.O.C. May, 2008
Gwacheon National Science Museum Gwacheon, Republic of Korea Jun, 2008
National Renewable Energy Laboratory Golden, CO Jul, 2008
Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History Washington, D.C. Jul, 2008
International Museum of Art & Science McAllen, TX Aug, 2008
Microsoft Visitor Center Redmond, WA Aug, 2008
Ted Stevens Marine Research Institute Juneau, AK Sep, 2008
Wallops Visitor Center Wallops Island, VA Nov, 2008
National Museum of Surveying Springfield, IL Nov, 2008
Boonshoft Museum of Discovery Dayton, OH Dec, 2008
Climate Institute Puebla, Mexico Dec, 2008
Whitaker Center for Science and the Arts Harrisburg, PA Jan, 2009
North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island Manteo, NC Feb, 2009
National Zoo Washington, D.C. Feb, 2009
Alaska State Museum Juneau, AK Mar, 2009
Stennis Space Center MS Mar, 2009
The Wildlife Experience Parker, CO Apr, 2009
Cité des Sciences et de l'Industrie Paris, France Jun, 2009
Oregon Museum of Science and Industry Portland, OR Jul, 2009
Heureka, The Finnish Science Centre Vantaa, Finland Aug, 2009
Houston Museum of Natural Science Sugarland, Texas Sep, 2009
Discovery Science Center Santa Ana, CA Oct, 2009
Challenger Learning Center Atwater, CA Jan, 2010
Natural History Museum Mexico City, Mexico Jan, 2010
Astronaut Hall of Fame Titusville, FL Jan, 2010
China Beijiko Meteorological Museum Nanjing, PRC Jan, 2010
Cité de l'espace Toulouse, France Feb, 2010
Denver Museum of Nature and Science Denver, CO Feb, 2010
Point Reyes National Seashore Point Reyes, CA Apr, 2010
Central Weather Bureau Taipei, Taiwan, R.O.C. May, 2010
Bay Education Center Rockport, TX Jun, 2010
Climate Institute Cuernavaca, Mexico Jul, 2010
Pacific Science Center Seattle, WA Sep, 2010
Danville Science Center Danville, VA Oct, 2010
London Science Museum London, England Nov, 2010
Climate Institute Chilpancingo, Mexico Dec, 2010
Climate Institute Atlacomulco, Mexico Dec, 2010
Climate Institute Metepec, Mexico Dec, 2010
Climate Institute, Casa de la Tierra Veracruz, Mexico Dec, 2010
Climate Institute, Planetario de Morelia Morelia, Mexico Dec, 2010
Science Museum of Virginia Richmond, VA Jan, 2011
Climate Institute Acapulco, Mexico Feb, 2011
Aquarium of the Pacific Long Beach, CA Mar, 2011
Detroit Zoo Royal Oak, MI Apr, 2011
Beijing Huaxinchuanzi Technology Co., Ltd. Beijing, PRC Apr, 2011
KIGAM Geological Museum Daejeon, Republic of Korea Apr, 2011
Our Planet Centre Castries, St. Lucia Apr, 2011
Nurture Nature Center Easton, PA May, 2011
Climate Factory Holeby, Denmark May, 2011
Climate Institute Texcoco, Mexico May, 2011
Climate Institute Valle de Bravo, Mexico May, 2011
Climate Institute Villahermosa, Mexico Aug, 2011
Nova Scotia Museum of Natural History Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada Aug, 2011
Aldo Leopold Nature Center Monona, WI Aug, 2011
Climate Institute Chetumal, Mexico Sep, 2011
Grand Canyon National Park Grand Canyon, AZ Oct, 2011
China Maritime Museum Shanghai, PRC Nov, 2011
St. Paul's School (Concord, New Hampshire) Concord, NH Dec, 2011
Science Centre Singapore Singapore Jan, 2012
Science City at Union Station Kansas City, MO Jan, 2012
Daegu National Science Museum Daegu, Republic of Korea Feb, 2012
Climate Institute Oaxaca, Mexico Mar, 2012
Instituto Oceanografico da Universidade de São Paulo São Paulo, Brazil Apr, 2012
The Wild Center Tupper Lake, NY May, 2012
Governor Tauese P.F. Sunia Ocean Center Pago Pago, American Samoa Jul, 2012
Space Foundation Colorado Springs, CO Jul, 2012
The Climate Corporation San Francisco, CA Aug, 2012
Telus World of Science Edmonton, Canada Sep, 2012
Universidad Autonoma de Coahuila Saltillo, Mexico Oct, 2012
Gwangju National Science Museum Gwangju, Republic of Korea Nov, 2012
National Youth Space Center Goheung, Republic of Korea Nov, 2012
Great Valley Museum - Modesto Junior College Modesto, CA Dec, 2012
China Science and Technology Museum Beijing, PRC Dec, 2012
Fuzhou Science and Technology Museum Fuzhou, PRC Jan, 2013
South Florida Science Museum West Palm Beach, FL Jan, 2013
E. O. Wilson Biophilia Center Freeport, FL Mar, 2013
Cyberinfrastructure Building at Indiana University Bloomington, IN Apr, 2013
Museo delle Scienze Trento, Italy May, 2013
Centro de Educación y Vigilancia Climática Global Ciudad Victoria, México Dec, 2013
Discovery Center Higashimatsushima, Japan Mar, 2014
Imagination Station Science Museum Wilson, NC Apr, 2014
St. Charles High School Waldorf, MD Apr, 2014
Climate Institute Monterrey, Mexico Jun, 2014
Visvesvaraya Industrial and Technological Museum Bangalore, India Jul, 2014
Exploreum Pasay City, Philippines Aug, 2014
Precision Planting Tremont, IL Sep, 2014
Discovery Cube Los Angeles Sylmar, CA Sep, 2014
MTA Natural History Museum Ankara, Turkey Sep, 2014
Heureka — The Finnish Science Centre Helsinki, Finland Nov, 2014


In the Fall of 2005 the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center ordered what would become the eighth SOS to be permanently installed. Michael Starobin, Goddard's senior media producer at the time, began the process of developing a presentation that would showcase NASA data. Through the autumn of 2005 and into the winter of 2006, Starobin worked on collecting source material to craft this presentation. Faced with the challenge of producing a seamless product akin to traditional video programs, Starobin came up with the idea for presenting video content from source material that did not originate as inherently spherical data. The goal would be to blend one edge of a video or still photographic frame with the opposite edge in order to create a fully spherical image. In the beginning of 2006, a small but powerful team of NASA Goddard staff joined the project, including data visualizers from the Scientific Visualization Studio and master editor and digital artist Victoria Weeks. On May 4, 2006 the team unveiled Footprints, the world's first fully realized spherical film. The project demonstrated a number of dramatic new techniques for visual conceptualization, including the idea of a seamless visual wrap.[25][26]

Since the release of Footprints, several other movies have been made or are currently in production for SOS, including:

  • Blue Planet Produced by the Science Museum of Minnesota and the American Museum of Natural History, this project examines the role of water in a variety of Earth processes.[27]
  • Cooking Up a Storm Produced by Rockwell Schrock, NOAA Hollings Scholar for the NOAA National Severe Storms Laboratory, as a summer project.[28]
  • Coral Science from Outer Space to Inner Space Produced by NOAA as part of the International Year of the Reef 2008.[29]
  • Energy Planet This short film, commissioned by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, is believed to be the first SOS project produced by a fully private production company.[30]
  • Energy Revolution NREL commissioned a sequel to Energy Planet, with a focus on five core technologies that can have significant positive influence on the nation's growing energy needs. It debuted at the 2009 UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen.[31]
  • Frozen Working with the most advanced satellite data available from NASA, FROZEN showcases those places on Earth where temperatures don’t generally rise above water’s freezing point.[32]
  • Largest Jupiter is not only the most massive planet in the solar system, but it may be one of the most influential as well. In LARGEST, NASA takes a close look at Jupiter, and considers its scientific and poetic place in the solar system.
  • Return to the Moon To commemorate the 40th anniversary of first Moon landing and to celebrate NASA's newest vehicle to visit the moon—the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter—the Space Agency commissioned this short film.[33]
  • Tsunami NOAA, in partnership with the National Tsunami Hazard Mitigation Program (NTHMP), produced "Tsunami", a new Science On a Sphere (SOS) presentation to commemorate the 5th anniversary of the devastating 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami.[34]
  • Flow: Currents and Climate Produced by the Science Museum of Minnesota, this piece looks at the role of oceans in the global climate.[35]
  • Forecast: Tropical Cyclone Produced by the American Museum of Natural History, this dataset provides an overview of the history of forecasting tropical cyclones and insights into the future of forecasting.[36]
  • "Loop" Everything in the universe seeks equilibrium. But equilibrium is elusive, with destabilizing forces always knocking things off kilter. In this NASA movie, data visualizations and dramatic imagery of the natural world present a science story about equilibrium in an inventive, conceptual way, and illustrate the propulsive essence of circulation in its many forms.[37]

See also

SOS Explorer, the desktop version of SOS for Windows and Mac computers, was released in September 2015 and is free for classroom or personal use.


External links