General Science

The Magical Window

posted: 05/10/16
by: Cody Barr
The Cupola
The Cupola

It has been over six years since the Cupola was attached to the International Space Station's Tranquility Node 3 module. Space-enthusiasts can breathe a sigh of relief and pencil in new weekend plans because the incredible story of how the view from the ISS has changed our view of Earth is finally making its big screen debut in IMAX's A Beautiful Planet, produced in cooperation with NASA and narrated by Jennifer Lawrence.

The "magical window" allowed astronauts, who moonlighted as cinematographers for this epic project, to capture unprecedented views of Earth including the Bahamas bathed in a full moon and a cloudless view of New Zealand. The audience doesn't even have to crouch down to experience and enjoy the beauty of the Cupola's panoramic view of Earth like the astronauts have to--the Cupola is only 4.7 feet tall. The standard IMAX screen is over 70 feet tall and chances are the seats in the theater are more comfortable than those in the stainless steel jungle of the ISS.

Caption: Our friends at DNews took an deeper look at life inside the stainless steel jungle - exercise!

Footage shot within the Cupola accounts for a significant portion of the 250,000 still images and 12 terabytes of video acquired to produce the 46-minute long feature now in IMAX theaters across the country. Before the Cupola, astronauts were only capable of viewing the Earth on hazardous spacewalks or from behind small 20-inch portholes. The Cupola's largest window is 31-inches in diameter, a perfect viewing portal of the Earth below.

Unfortunately, the Cupola was not always perfect place to film. As any amateur filmmaker knows, windows can be tricky with their funky glares and small bits of dust particles that intrude on your best shot. The seven high-tech silica glass windows on the Cupola were no exception, especially with the looming possibility of micrometeorites, intense temperatures and solar radiation.

According to IMAX, their desire to film from aboard the Cupola forced them to design an "exclusive bump shield made of a space-rated clear material" that was "equipped with sliding doors" to allow the cameras to have the clearest possible views. The shields were flown into space specially for A Beautiful Planet.

Not only did producers have to worry about filming through windows, they had to factor in physical space aboard the ISS and inside the Cupola. To solve this, producers sent the astronauts-turned-cinematographers professional-grade digital SLR cameras.

Science Channel was fortunate to be able to talk to Astronaut Reid Weisman about his passion for taking photos and the adjustments he made to capture the amazing photos of our Earth. By posting his shots on social media he - and other astronauts - have been able to show us colorful, surprising and breathtaking views of the world.

Thankfully, most were quick to learn the intricacies of manual camera settings and found the size of the cameras to be non-obtrusive. Finding the perfect exposure, aperture and focus is not easy aboard the Cupola where where oftentimes one half of the frame is true black and the other is beaming with bright light. However, after 15 months of shooting across 180 million miles, practice made perfect!

Find out more about IMAX's A Beautiful Planet here.

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