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Thursday, August 12, 2010

Mobile Planetariums

The Austin Planetarium has a new mobile planetarium, the Austin Planetarium Discovery Dome, and we can bring it directly to your school or event venue anywhere in Austin and the surrounding communities.

You may say, “why all the excitement?” Perhaps you remember that we had another mobile planetarium, the Star Bubble, which traveled to various school science fairs and community events. Why get a new one? What are the advantages of the new system?

The advantages are threefold. First, we now have a full-time astronomy educator who will travel with the mobile planetarium to your school or event. This means we can use it during school hours and are not limited to evening and weekend events. Second, this is a better and larger inflatable dome which means we have ventilation! All of you who visited our star bubble will remember how hot it would get inside, so this is a definite upgrade! Lastly, with the Star Bubble we never had our own projector, but instead used the projector of a donor who kindly loaned it to us. With our new Discovery Dome we now have our very own fully digital projection system!

Let’s talk about the different types of mobile planetariums. There are 3 popular types of mobile planetariums.

First, there’s the Star Bubble. Our original mobile planetarium was of the Star Bubble variety. We have had it for many years, but it turned out to be very difficult to use. The big problem was the setup; it was completely impossible for just one person to assemble. We always needed 3 or 4 strong individuals to bend the PVC pipes into shape. It seems to have been designed to be set up once, then easily moved to a different nearby location, but not to be set up and torn down at each location, as we did. The second problem was that the fabric, which comprised the dome, had gaps and therefore it was not 100% dark inside; of course, this is a problem if you’re trying to project something on the dome. Lastly, as mentioned before, it got HOT!!! Eventually we rigged some sort of AC contraption to force some cool air inside, but it was far from ideal. The projection system consisted of a laptop computer and a borrowed projector with a fisheye lens. It was set up in the middle of the dome and the audience sat around the edge. Visually, it was a very good system, but not as bright as we would have liked. One advantage of the Star Bubble is that it could be set up outside, if desired.

Second, there’s the StarLab. Some schools and organizations in the Austin area have a StarLab mobile planetarium. This was arguably the first commercially available mobile planetarium, and has been very popular for years. StarLabs use an inflatable dome with a standard diameter of 16 ft (4.9 m), although it is also available in a larger size. To enter, you crawl in through a tunnel to prevent the air from escaping from the dome. Once inside, people sit around the edge of the dome with the projection system in the middle. The projection system consists of a series of cylinders imprinted with images; when activated the light from within the cylinder projects the images upward onto the dome. The system will rotate and tilt to simulate different dates or times and different viewing locations. However, to change the display from a star field to constellations connected by lines or overlaid with constellation art, you must turn off the projector and change the cylinder…in the dark. Furthermore, the motion of the planets and phases of the moon cannot easily be simulated with this system.

The third type of mobile planetarium is the Discovery Dome. The Austin Planetarium’s new Discovery Dome has several advantages over the other two mobile planetarium types. It is an inflatable dome that is much easier and quicker to set up than the Star Bubble; we unroll it, plug in the fan, and within 5 minutes we have a planetarium! With a diameter of 18 ft (6 meters), it is larger and can fit more people than either of the other types of domes currently available in the area (yes, we have the largest inflatable planetarium in the Austin area!). It has a full-height “airlock” entry to allow adults to walk into the dome upright while keeping air loss to a minimum.

The Austin Planetarium Discovery Dome also utilizes a state-of-the-art digital projection system. This system is set up on one side of the dome so that people are seated in rows all looking in the same direction. This unidirectional design ensures more of the viewers can see the focal point or “sweet spot” of the projection. The system consists of a laptop computer, a standard projector, a flat mirror, and a curved mirror to “warp” the images to properly display them on the curved inside surface of the dome. This projection system has a higher resolution than the one we used in the Star Bubble. Interactive night sky software allows us to show not only star fields, including constellation lines and artwork as desired, but also planets and moon phases in their correct positions for any selected date and time. We can zoom in on planets, nebulas, and galaxies to see a telescopic view of these objects. In addition, we can show incredible full-dome immersive videos specially made for planetariums. Programs can cover any topic, not just astronomy; so students can learn about biology, history, earth science, and space travel for example. We can also display fantastic entertainment and music videos for private parties and corporate groups.

So I hope you are as excited as we are about the new Austin Planetarium Discovery Dome mobile digital planetarium. We would like to involve as many of the schools and general public as possible in our programs. After all, no one should have to grow up without finding out for themselves the immersive wonders of a modern digital planetarium.

For more information you can visit our newly added mobile planetarium pages, where we have program and pricing information and reservation forms.