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Friday, Aug. 11, 2006

Advanced star projector is life's work for creator


Staff writer

Art, music, writing, acting -- there are nearly as many ways to express one's creative impulses as there are people.

News photo
The Megastar projects stars onto the wall of the observation deck at the Roppongi Hills complex earlier this month. SATOKO KAWASAKI PHOTOS

Takayuki Ohira, 36, looks to the stars for his artistic inspiration; stars he creates himself in planetariums. "It's like a musical instrument I created," said Ohira, who designed Megastar-II Cosmos, which was recognized in 2004 by Guinness World Records as the world's most advanced star projector.

The machine can project about 5 million stars onto a planetarium dome and goes nature one better: With the naked eye, people can only see stars with a magnitude of six or brighter -- the brightest stars are magnitude 1 -- but Megastar-II Cosmos projects stars as faint as magnitude 12.5, allowing stargazers to see much more than they can from their backyards.

And Ohira's creation is also more than an educational tool. The planetarium event, which opened Aug. 1, is held in collaboration with the Africa Remix exhibition on the 52nd floor of the Roppongi Hills complex in Tokyo's Minato Ward. The exhibit projects stars on the ceiling, walls and windows of the building's observation deck. When combined with the lights of the city below, the effect is stunning.

News photo
Takayuki Ohira shows off a simplified Megastar planetarium projector behind him earlier this month in Tokyo.

"It is a collaboration of stars in the sky and 'stars' on the ground that normally would never be seen together," Ohira said.

For the event, which runs through Aug. 31, Ohira built a smaller projector that show the stars as seen from Kenya, including the Southern Cross. He had to increase the brightness of the projector so viewers can see the stars against the city lights.

Ohira, a native of Kawasaki, became fascinated by astronomy in junior high, after seeing the Milky Way from Mount Fuji while on a hike with his father. To pursue his new passion, he bought a telescope and began photographing the stars.

In high school, Ohira visited Australia, and the view of the heavens from there stayed with him. "You can see the most beautiful part of the Milky Way, the center of the galaxy, up above (your) head from the Southern Hemisphere. You can't see it that high up in Japan," he said.

At the time, Ohira never dreamed he would re-create that spectacle with his own high-tech projector, but that's what happened. Soon after starting college, he began making star projectors and his enthusiasm for his hobby didn't wane even after he went to work for Sony Corp. as an engineer.

In 1998, he unveiled Megastar, the predecessor of his latest projector, a machine capable of projecting 1 million stars, at the International Planetarium Society convention in London.

After Megastar became a hit, Ohira quit his day job at Sony and began holding planetarium shows around Japan.

"Megastar may not be a necessity of life but it makes our lives richer," he said. "It's like music."

Ohira pointed out that planetariums have long been seen as a good way to teach children about astronomy. But he believes with a touch of art and entertainment, people of all ages can enjoy the shows.

"Stars are not for people of a certain age group just as air, water, rivers and blue skies are not," Ohira said.

He hopes to hold more shows around the country so more people can see Megastar's representation of the night sky. There are Megastar-II projectors permanently stationed at the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation, in Tokyo's Odaiba district, and the Kawasaki Municipal Science Museum for Youth.

Ohira also wants to show off his projector overseas, especially in the United States, where new projectors using computer graphics are being developed. Such projectors allow viewers to look at the stars from different locations, even from outside the galaxy.

Megastar, by contrast, allows viewers to see the most distant stars in the universe from a fixed location.

Ohira said American planetariums are moving, while Megastar offers a stationary perspective.

"I want to promote (Megastar) to the world as a Japanese star projector," Ohira said.



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