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The Hubble's incredible adventure

First, there's a single galaxy - a voluptuous pinwheel of stars turning majestically in an inky sky.

Then we see hundreds, thousands of them in a bewildering throng. And before we know it, we lurch forward and begin to fly through them, plunging deep into intergalactic space, toward the earliest moments of the universe. Galaxies whip by us like billboards on the highway.

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This race across space and time is playing at the Maryland Science Center at the Inner Harbor. It's an unheralded, three-minute IMAX short subject tucked in before Jane Goodall's Wild Chimpanzees.

Assembled entirely from images captured by the Hubble Space Telescope, the film was conceived by scientists and digital animators at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore to illustrate the concept of galactic evolution. The problem: It looks so real that people think it's a fake.

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"The message I want to get across is that we really can see galaxies evolve and change over time in the universe," said Frank Summers, a cosmologist at the institute and director of the film, Hubble: Galaxies Across Space and Time.

The movie was the hands-down favorite recently at the Large Format Cinema Association's film festival, winning the 2004 prize for best short feature.

"What [viewers are] seeing is not some animator's imagination of what the universe looks like," Summers said. "This is really what it looks like."

But not everyone at the Science Center for a recent screening understood that.

"My question was, 'Are those real or re-enactments?' ... It looked so unreal, too crisp. I would have liked to have seen actual footage," said New Yorker Mark Feldman, 46, who was visiting Baltimore with his family.

Well, it was "actual footage," gathered by Hubble in 2002 and last year as part of the Great Observatories Origins Deep Survey (GOODS).

Images are crisp because Hubble's light-gathering and resolving powers are spectacular. The telescope shot 15 pictures, which were assembled into a mosaic with 30,000 galaxies visible in a field of view about a third the size of a full moon. The image contains 625 megapixels of data, or almost 200 times as much detail as a typical digital camera can capture.

Seeing it, Summers and his team realized only the IMAX format would do it justice. So, with a donation of film-mastering services and a first print from the IMAX Corp., the project was launched. Ten people at the institute spent 10 weeks last fall producing the film.

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Taking Hubble's raw data, gathered in a variety of visible and infrared wavelengths, they combined it into 15 full-color images. They stitched those images together in a digital mosaic, and deleted all the dots and streaks left by speeding solar particles as they struck Hubble's detectors.

"It's cleaned up a little," Summers conceded. "But it's not just created out of anyone's mind."

To add to the realism, Summers' team wanted to "fly" IMAX moviegoers across the universe, moving from the nearest (and most evolved) galaxies to the most distant and primitive. (Because light from more distant objects takes more time to reach Earth, the more remote galaxies appear as they were much earlier in their evolution.)

So, the team members selected 11,000 galaxies from the GOODS images. Then, guided by real data on the galaxies' distances from Earth, they used 3-D software to place each galaxy at its true relative distance in a virtual universe.

Moviegoers fly through the galaxies at "a few trillion times the speed of light," Summers said.

With more time and money, Summers said, he could have told an even richer story.

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"There are so many more interesting scientific points we could make with the GOODS field," he said. For example, "I'd like to figure out a way to give the public an appreciation for the expansion of the universe they live in."

Beyond the GOODS pictures, he said, "there are so many gorgeous visuals from Hubble. I'm sure we could fill 30 or 45 minutes of IMAX film."


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