Science On a Sphere

Science On a Sphere (SOS) is a spherical projection system created by the United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (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 has been installed in more than 130 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 two graphics cards (one 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 former director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Earth System Research Laboratory in Boulder, CO, and (Office of Air and Radiation (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.[5] General system architecture and configuration specifications are as follows.[6]

The sphere

The carbon fiber sphere is 68 inches (1.7 m) in diameter. Other sphere sizes are possible, such as 48" and 60". Larger sizes are possible too. 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 software is also now compatible with 4k projectors.

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 GTX graphics cards, and an iPad app to control the Science On a Sphere.[9] 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.[10] There are currently over 500 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 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.[11]

All of the datasets for Science On a Sphere are available online in the SOS Dataset Catalog.[12] The datasets are divided into six main categories: Land, Water, Air, Space, Snow & Ice, People, and Extras. 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.[13]

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 LaboratoryBoulder, CO
Experience Music Project and Science Fiction Museum and Hall of FameSeattle, WAMay, 2004
Nauticus – The National Maritime CenterNorfolk, VAMay, 2005
Science Museum of MinnesotaSt. Paul, MNJan, 2006
Bernice P. Bishop MuseumHonolulu, HIFeb, 2006
The Tech Museum of InnovationSan Jose, CAMar, 2006
Maryland Science CenterBaltimore, MDApr, 2006
NASA Goddard Space Flight Center Visitors CenterGreenbelt, MDApr, 2006
Thunder Bay National Marine SanctuaryAlpena, MIJun, 2006
Imiloa Astronomy Center of HawaiiHilo, HINov, 2006
James Madison UniversityHarrisonburg, VANov, 2006
McWane Science CenterBirmingham, ALFeb, 2007
Fiske Planetarium and Science Center at the University of ColoradoBoulder, COMar, 2007
Orlando Science CenterOrlando, FloridaMay, 2007
Museum of Science and IndustryChicago, ILJun, 2007
National Weather CenterNorman, OKAug, 2007
Ocean ExploriumNew Bedford, MADec, 2007
Clark PlanetariumSalt Lake City, UTMar, 2008
Lawrence Hall of ScienceBerkeley, CAApr, 2008
National Museum of Natural ScienceTaichung, Taiwan, R.O.C.May, 2008
Gwacheon National Science MuseumGwacheon, Republic of KoreaJun, 2008
National Renewable Energy LaboratoryGolden, COJul, 2008
Smithsonian National Museum of Natural HistoryWashington, D.C.Jul, 2008
International Museum of Art & ScienceMcAllen, TXAug, 2008
Microsoft Visitor CenterRedmond, WAAug, 2008
Ted Stevens Marine Research InstituteJuneau, AKSep, 2008
Wallops Visitor CenterWallops Island, VANov, 2008
National Museum of SurveyingSpringfield, ILNov, 2008
Boonshoft Museum of DiscoveryDayton, OHDec, 2008
Climate InstitutePuebla, MexicoDec, 2008
Whitaker Center for Science and the ArtsHarrisburg, PAJan, 2009
North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke IslandManteo, NCFeb, 2009
National ZooWashington, D.C.Feb, 2009
Alaska State MuseumJuneau, AKMar, 2009
Stennis Space CenterMSMar, 2009
The Wildlife ExperienceParker, COApr, 2009
Cité des Sciences et de l'IndustrieParis, FranceJun, 2009
Oregon Museum of Science and IndustryPortland, ORJul, 2009
Heureka, The Finnish Science CentreVantaa, FinlandAug, 2009
Houston Museum of Natural ScienceSugarland, TexasSep, 2009
Discovery Science CenterSanta Ana, CAOct, 2009
Challenger Learning CenterAtwater, CAJan, 2010
Natural History MuseumMexico City, MexicoJan, 2010
Astronaut Hall of FameTitusville, FLJan, 2010
China Beijiko Meteorological MuseumNanjing, PRCJan, 2010
Cité de l'espaceToulouse, FranceFeb, 2010
Denver Museum of Nature and ScienceDenver, COFeb, 2010
Point Reyes National SeashorePoint Reyes, CAApr, 2010
Central Weather BureauTaipei, Taiwan, R.O.C.May, 2010
Bay Education CenterRockport, TXJun, 2010
Climate InstituteCuernavaca, MexicoJul, 2010
Pacific Science CenterSeattle, WASep, 2010
Danville Science CenterDanville, VAOct, 2010
London Science MuseumLondon, EnglandNov, 2010
Climate InstituteChilpancingo, MexicoDec, 2010
Climate InstituteAtlacomulco, MexicoDec, 2010
Climate InstituteMetepec, MexicoDec, 2010
Climate Institute, Casa de la TierraVeracruz, MexicoDec, 2010
Climate Institute, Planetario de MoreliaMorelia, MexicoDec, 2010
Science Museum of VirginiaRichmond, VAJan, 2011
Climate InstituteAcapulco, MexicoFeb, 2011
Aquarium of the PacificLong Beach, CAMar, 2011
Detroit ZooRoyal Oak, MIApr, 2011
Beijing Huaxinchuanzi Technology Co., Ltd.Beijing, PRCApr, 2011
KIGAM Geological MuseumDaejeon, Republic of KoreaApr, 2011
Our Planet CentreCastries, St. LuciaApr, 2011
Nurture Nature CenterEaston, PAMay, 2011
Climate FactoryHoleby, DenmarkMay, 2011
Climate InstituteTexcoco, MexicoMay, 2011
Climate InstituteValle de Bravo, MexicoMay, 2011
Climate InstituteVillahermosa, MexicoAug, 2011
Nova Scotia Museum of Natural HistoryHalifax, Nova Scotia, CanadaAug, 2011
Aldo Leopold Nature CenterMonona, WIAug, 2011
Climate InstituteChetumal, MexicoSep, 2011
Grand Canyon National ParkGrand Canyon, AZOct, 2011
China Maritime MuseumShanghai, PRCNov, 2011
St. Paul's School (Concord, New Hampshire)Concord, NHDec, 2011
Science Centre SingaporeSingaporeJan, 2012
Science City at Union StationKansas City, MOJan, 2012
Daegu National Science MuseumDaegu, Republic of KoreaFeb, 2012
Climate InstituteOaxaca, MexicoMar, 2012
Instituto Oceanografico da Universidade de São PauloSão Paulo, BrazilApr, 2012
The Wild CenterTupper Lake, NYMay, 2012
Governor Tauese P.F. Sunia Ocean CenterPago Pago, American SamoaJul, 2012
Space FoundationColorado Springs, COJul, 2012
The Climate CorporationSan Francisco, CAAug, 2012
Telus World of ScienceEdmonton, CanadaSep, 2012
Universidad Autonoma de CoahuilaSaltillo, MexicoOct, 2012
Gwangju National Science MuseumGwangju, Republic of KoreaNov, 2012
National Youth Space CenterGoheung, Republic of KoreaNov, 2012
Great Valley Museum – Modesto Junior CollegeModesto, CADec, 2012
China Science and Technology MuseumBeijing, PRCDec, 2012
Fuzhou Science and Technology MuseumFuzhou, PRCJan, 2013
South Florida Science MuseumWest Palm Beach, FLJan, 2013
E. O. Wilson Biophilia CenterFreeport, FLMar, 2013
Cyberinfrastructure Building at Indiana UniversityBloomington, INApr, 2013
Museo delle ScienzeTrento, ItalyMay, 2013
Techmania Science CenterPilsen, CzechiaNov, 2013
Centro de Educación y Vigilancia Climática GlobalCiudad Victoria, MéxicoDec, 2013
Discovery CenterHigashimatsushima, JapanMar, 2014
Imagination Station Science MuseumWilson, NCApr, 2014
St. Charles High SchoolWaldorf, MDApr, 2014
Climate InstituteMonterrey, MexicoJun, 2014
Visvesvaraya Industrial and Technological MuseumBangalore, IndiaJul, 2014
ExploreumPasay City, PhilippinesAug, 2014
Precision PlantingTremont, ILSep, 2014
Discovery Cube Los AngelesSylmar, CASep, 2014
MTA Natural History MuseumAnkara, TurkeySep, 2014
Children's CityDubai, United Arab EmiratesJan, 2015
Climate InstituteReynosa, MexicoJan, 2015
Hong Kong Maritime MuseumHong Kong, SARFeb, 2015
GulfQuest Maritime MuseumMobile, ALMar, 2015
EarthDay TexasDallas, TXApr, 2015
EcoParque Los YarumosManizales, ColombiaMay, 2015
Alternator Science CenterTrebic, Czech RepublicJun, 2015
Wings of Eagles Discovery CenterHorseheads, NYJun, 2015
Chongqing Museum of Natural HistoryChongqing, PRCJul, 2015
China Nantong Meteorological MuseumNantong, PRCJul, 2015
Museum of Arts and SciencesMacon, GAAug, 2015
Rochester Museum and Science CenterRochester, NYAug, 2015
Baotau International Convention and Exhibition CenterBaotau, PRCAug, 2015
Panasonic Avionics CorporationLake Forest, CAOct, 2015
Room of Science at the Governor's OfficeManado, IndonesiaNov, 2015
Sanya Meteorological BureauSanya, PRCDec, 2015
Macau Science CenterMacau, SARFeb, 2016
Casa de la Tierra, Descubre Museo Interactivo de Ciencia y Tecnología Aguascalientes, Ags, Mexico Feb, 2016
Science CityKolkata, IndiaMar, 2016
National Science Centre, DelhiNew Delhi, IndiaMar, 2016
Discovery MuseumBridgeport, CTMar, 2016
JiangXi Weather BureauNanchang, PRCMar, 2016
Yan'an Science and Technology MuseumYan'An City, PRCApr, 2016
Spaceport SheboyganSheboygan, WIApr, 2016
Fair Oaks FarmsFair Oaks, INMay, 2016
Nehru Science CentreMumbai, IndiaMay, 2016
Kalamazoo Valley MuseumKalamazoo, MIDec, 2016
National Media MuseumBradford, EnglandFeb, 2017
Keesler Air Force Base Biloxi, MI Mar, 2017
Santa Fe Community College Santa Fe, NM Mar, 2017
Climate PlanetAarhus, DenmarkMay, 2017
Morristown-Beard SchoolMorristown, NJAug, 2017


In 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 do not 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]

Today there are over 80 narrated movies for SOS.

See also


  1. "SOS Sites | Science On a Sphere". Retrieved 2016-11-26.
  2. Setup and Installation Details Retrieved on 08-03-09
  3. "Science On a Sphere Geometry" (PDF). Retrieved 2016-11-26.
  4. "Content Creation | Science On a Sphere". Retrieved 2016-11-26.
  5. "Datasets | Science On a Sphere". Retrieved 2016-11-26.
  6. "Science On a Sphere Users Collaborative Network". Retrieved 2016-11-26.
  7. "SOS Network 2007 Workshop Report Page". Retrieved 2016-11-26.
  8. "2007 Network ASTC Meeting Report". Retrieved 2016-11-26.
  9. "2008 SOS Network Report". Retrieved 2016-11-26.
  10. "2008 Network ASTC Meeting Report". 2009-01-09. Retrieved 2016-11-26.
  11. "Planning for the 2011 Workshop". Retrieved 2016-11-26.
  12. "Planning for the 2012 Workshop". Retrieved 2016-11-26.
  13. "SOS Network workshops and meetings | National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration". 2015-09-02. Retrieved 2016-11-26.
  14. "SOS Network workshops and meetings | National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration". 2015-09-02. Retrieved 2016-11-26.
  15. "2017 Science On a Sphere® Users Collaborative Network Workshop | National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration". Retrieved 2017-07-21.
  16. "Evaluation Information". 2011-02-11. Retrieved 2016-11-26.
  17. "NASA – 'Footprints' and Science On a Sphere". 2009-02-18. Retrieved 2016-11-26.
  18. "Best Inventions of 2006". TIME. Retrieved 2016-11-26.
  19. "Cooking Up A Storm". Retrieved 2016-11-26.
  20. "Squarespace – Claim This Domain". Retrieved 2016-11-26.
  21. "Squarespace – Claim This Domain". Retrieved 2016-11-26.
  22. "NASA – Frozen Interactive". 2009-03-12. Retrieved 2016-11-26.
  23. "NASA – Return to the Moon". Retrieved 2016-11-26.
  24. "Loop – Home". 2014-06-30. Retrieved 2016-11-26.
  • Official website
  • 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.
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