For the first time in six years, a new space show — this one narrated by Lupita Nyong’o — is at the American Museum of Natural History’s Hayden Planetarium. But what audiences will see is not what the creative team started out making.

“Initially we wanted to have a show about the solar system, looking at all the recent discoveries that people might not have heard about,” said Dr. Natalie Starkey who wrote the half-hour film called Worlds Beyond Earth. “Not just going to the planets that everybody knows and they know so well from school, but maybe going to them and looking at the weird part.”

As they turned data from NASA missions like Cassini and Voyager I into visualizations, however, they realized the film was becoming something different. It became more poignant.

“We wanted to take a moment to think about what it means to be on Earth and what we can learn from these other planets about how to protect our future here,” she said.

Many objects in our solar system have Earth-like attributes without quite being Earth, she says. Take Venus. It’s close by, born of the same materials and roughly the same size as our planet.

As Starkey says, “it should really be similar to Earth — but it’s not. It’s 450 degrees Celsius. The surface is not habitable for life.”

And on the other side of us, she says, is Mars, which is freezing cold and also not habitable. Earth is in the middle, and our planet unique in our solar system.

Then there’s Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, which has a much thicker atmosphere than scientists were expecting to find and is almost Earth-like — but too cold for liquid water, so the rain is made of methane instead.

The film zooms past Venus, Mars, Saturn and objects like Comet 67P, showing the trajectories of exploring spacecraft with a new planetarium laser projection system that the museum says is the most advanced in the world. It has a high dynamic range, so the brights are brighter, and the darks darker. When the night sky is projected onto the dome as part of the film, it looks eerily real, as if you were sitting in a lawn chair in a remote part of the country, staring up at the sky. It feels completely immersive.

But more importantly, the new technology means that what you see exactly reflects the science.

“So when you fly over Mars, you're seeing a very accurate depiction of not only just the image but the elevation,” said Carter Emmart, the film’s director and the museum’s director of astrovisualization.


That accuracy is punctuated by amazing facts, like “the asteroid belt contains millions of rocky remnants from the formation of the planets” but if you squeezed all of them into one object, “it would have a mass less than our moon.”

And the film explains that volcanoes are critical to planetary development because they “feed the atmosphere with water and other gases.”

The volcanoes on Venus helped develop the scientific view of global warming, because on that planet, all the carbon dioxide in its atmosphere “traps heat from the sun, turning Venus into a greenhouse world hot enough to melt lead.”

Dr. Denton Ebel, the head of the museum’s physical sciences division and the curator of the show, says he hopes this information helps museum visitors understand how scientists know what they know about climate change.

“We probably started a lot like Venus started, or even Mars,” Ebel said. “Yet we live here. We don’t live on Mars — it would be very hard to live on Mars and very impossible to live on Venus, because of the way those worlds evolved over time. We live in a very special place, and ultimately we need to sustain it.”

Worlds Beyond Earth runs daily at the American Museum of Natural History’s Hayden Planetarium through 2024.