Shanghai is About to Open the World’s Largest Astronomy Museum

China has certainly been making its growing power and influence felt in recent years, especially when it comes to the realm of space exploration and science. In the past ten years alone, China has deployed the three space stations with their Tiangong (“Heavenly Palace”) program, unveiled the Long March 5 heavy launch rocket, and sent robotic missions to the far side of the Moon and the surface of Mars.

Here on Earth, facilities like the Five hundred meter Aperture Space Telescope (FAST) illustrate China’s growing accomplishments in space and astronomy. And on Friday (July 16th), the largest museum in the world dedicated to the study of space – the Shanghai Astronomy Museum – will open its doors. The purpose and design of this museum is to highlight China’s accomplishments in space and astronomy, as well as the country’s future ambitions in space.

The design was conceived by Ennead Architects, a firm with offices in New York and Shanghai that won an international competition in 2014 for their inspired creation. Their previous work includes New York’s Rose Center for Earth and Space at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH). At 39,000 m2 (420,000 ft2), this new branch of the Shanghai Science of Technology Museum (SSTM) will be the largest of its kind in the world.

Architect’s impression of the museum at night. Credit: Ennead Architects

Inspired by the orbits of celestial bodies and the geometry of the cosmos, the layout of the SAM has no straight lines or right angles. According to Thomas J. Wong, a partner at Ennead and the museum’s lead designer, it was also inspired by the “three-body problem,” an as-of-yet unresolved question in classical physics of how to calculate the motion of three celestial bodies.

It is also the title of the novel written by celebrated Chinese science fiction author Liu Cixin, which was released in 2008 (translated into English in 2014) and is the first installment in his Remembrance of Earth’s Past series (which deals with extraterrestrials). As Wong explained in a video interview with CNN about the project:

“We really thought that we could leverage the architecture to bring incredible impact to this whole experience. The building is meant to be this embodiment of … astronomically inspired architecture. The reason why we thought the three-body problem was interesting is because it’s a complex set of orbits. (These are) relationships that are dynamic, as opposed to a simple circle around the center. And that was part of the (design’s) intent – to capture that complexity.”

According to Ennead’s website, the structure’s complex curvilinear shape is formed from three overlapping arcs, which is symbolic of how the museum is a celebration of “the continuum of time and space.” It also symbolizes a connection to the past and the future, being a modern “forward-looking” structure representative of China’s future ambitions in space, and a connection to China’s long history of astronomy.

The Oculus and reflecting pool in the museum’s entryway. Credit: Ennead Architects

“In linking the new Museum to both scientific purpose and to the celestial references of buildings throughout history, said Wong, “the exhibits and architecture will communicate more than scientific content: they will illuminate what it means to be human in a vast and largely unknown universe.”

In Wong’s design, the geometry of the cosmos is conveyed through three arcing shapes: the Oculus, the Sphere, and the Inverted Dome. In addition to architectural features, these are also astronomical instruments that track the motions of the Sun, Moon, and stars (respectively). Each of these also houses an important visitor attraction, beginning with the Oculus located at the museum’s main entrance.

Suspended above the main entrance to the Museum, the Oculus produces a circle of sunlight that moves along the ground, across the entry plaza and a reflecting pool. At noon during the summer solstice, there is a full circle of light that aligns with a circular platform inside the museum’s entry plaza. In this respect, the Oculus acts as a timepiece and illustrates how Earth’s relationship with the Sun depends on the time of day and the season.

The next stop is the planetarium theater, which is submerged in the building with its underbelly emerging from the ceiling inside. With little visible support, it creates the illusion of weightlessness and alludes to the primordial shapes of planets, stars, and other celestial objects. Last, but not least, the sphere gradually emerges into view as visitors moved around the building, resembling a Moonrise on Earth’s horizon.

The planetarium, which is housed inside a large sphere in the museum. Credit: Ennead Architects

Last, there’s the vast inverted glass dome, a tension structure that sits atop the central atrium that gives viewers an unimpeded view of the sky. This dome contains a 720-degree spiraling ramp that and focuses the eye upwards towards the dome’s apex and gives visitors a chance to experience an unimpeded view of the sky. This represents the culmination of the simulated cosmological journey that is the Museum.

“We want people to understand the special nature of the Earth as a place that hosts life, unlike any other place that we know of in the universe,” as Wong put it. This museum will feature both temporary and permanent exhibitions, featuring immersive environments, artifacts and instruments of space exploration, and educational activities. It will also house a ~24 meter (78 foot) tall solar telescope, an observatory, a youth observation camp, and a Digital Sky Theater.

The exhibition already houses a very impressive collection of specimens, with over 70 samples of meteorites, some of which originated from Mars and the asteroid Vesta, and Moon rocks. The museum also has an impressive range of artifacts from over 120 collections, including original works by Galileo, Kepler, Newton, and other astronomers. The museum also has facilities that rely on augmented reality, virtual reality, biometrics, and artificial intelligence to simulate different kinds of astronomical experiences.

Seen from the sky, one can also get the impression that the museum looks like an astrolabe – an ancient device was essentially a handheld model of the universe. From classical antiquity and the Islamic Golden age to the High Middle Ages and “Age of Discovery, this instrument was used by astronomers to measure the altitude above the horizon of a celestial body, identify stars and planets, determine local latitude or time, and navigate at sea.

The “wheels within wheels” configuration of the main structure are also reminiscent of ancient and Renaissance cosmological maps that show the orbits of the planets around the Sun. The elliptical shape of the main buildings is also highly reminiscent of Kepler’s depiction of elliptical orbits. For that matter, it also calls to mind a traditional timepiece, where its interlinked structures and concentric circles grounds resembling gears and wheels.

And as for the planetarium, I dare anyone to say with a straight face that it doesn’t remind them of the big sphere from Sphere (look it up, you’ll see). The museum will be open to the general public next Monday (July 19th), but many have already witnessed the Astronomy Museum’s exhibits and displays through special tours. For those of us who can’t make the trip, the competition video posted above provides a nice walk-through.

For more information, check out Ennead Architects‘ website.

Further Reading: CNN, Ennead Architects