After 36 years, stars are twinkling again at Discovery Place Nature Museum.
A new digital planetarium opens Saturday in the same domed amphitheater that offered sky shows from 1964 to 1980, on Sterling Road near Freedom Park.
Instead of using an old globe sketching the sparkling heavens through pinpoint holes, the museum has installed a digital projector with a wide range of graphic capabilities.
Driven by a computer, the projector simulates both warp drive and time travel.
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It can speed the viewer 13 billion light years to the edge of the observable universe or detail the position of stars and planets on any date in history and from any vantage point on Earth.
Kaylan Petrie, director of STEM experiences for Discovery Place, says she can conjure up the winter sky from the age of Egyptian pharaohs and send it whirling through its nightly circuit.
“It can draw the sky back to ancient times and into the future,” says Petrie.
The new planetarium came in at about $50,000 – astronomically low, as anyone knows who has ever redone a kitchen.
Four big moons of Jupiter are visible from Earth through binoculars. Petrie’s computer can show you how they’d be arrayed around the giant planet on any given night. Just pick a date.
Think the stars would look the same over time? Hardly.
You know Polaris as the north star, the one around which the firmament turns like an old phonograph record around the spindle. But 4,500 years ago, when the Great Pyramids were a construction zone, the north star was Thuban, a speck of light in the Little Dipper.
That’s because the Earth wobbles on its axis like a spinning top, says Petrie, meaning the north pole points to different stars over time. It takes about 26,000 years to complete each lap, meaning Thuban will return to its glory days, at least in the eyes of celestial navigators, in about 20,000 years.
What’s old is new
Joanie Philipp, vice president of exhibitions, says she’s been agitating for a decade for Discovery Place to get back into the planetarium business. Google, of all things, turned the tide.
Charlotte’s original planetarium was built in 1964 at what was then called the Children’s Nature Center. Astronomer Charlotte Kelly did shows there for a generation of students and became known as “the star lady” of Charlotte.
When Kelly retired in 1969, the planetarium was re-named in her honor.
In 1980, it was decommissioned as Discovery Place was getting ready to open on North Tryon Street. Sky shows resumed in the new IMAX theater for two decades, then fizzled out.
Back in the old domed room at the nature center, a talking animatronic perennial named Grandpa Tree took up residence, telling children about wildlife. He had a good run, but he got old too.
Debra Smul, vice president of marketing at Discovery Place, kept getting nagged by the public for planetarium shows. There would be at least one inquiry a week. So she checked Google analytics for “Kelly Planetarium.”
Pow. Lots of people were still searching for it more than 30 years after it closed. Told ya, said Philipp.
Discovery Place found that planetarium projectors – those spooky old globes that resembled a giant ant’s thorax and abdomen – had become quite affordable and compact in the digital age.
“Technology had advanced,” said Philipp, “and prices had come down.”
Including touch-up work in the dome and bean-bag chairs for the visitors, the new planetarium came in at about $50,000 – astronomically low, as anyone knows who has ever redone a kitchen.
There will be room for about 50 in each audience, depending on how many children decide to opt for the floor. Two shows are in rotation beginning this weekend, one on returning explorers to the moon and one on the winter sky.
Gastonia’s Schiele Museum still provides the region’s largest planetarium. It was recently upgraded with digital full-dome projection and renovation of the facility’s interior. It seats 155.
If you ask Petrie what’s happened in astronomy since the old planetarium closed in 1980, she will pelt you with discoveries, big ones.
Demotion of Pluto from planetary status. X-ray and infrared telescopes that unexpectedly revealed how the Milky Way galaxy is absolutely pimpled with black holes. Planets found around other stars. Commercial space exploration. A renewed interest in human space flight.
“We’re entering a time where any person could become an astronaut,” says Petrie, who propels them in imagination, anyway, at Discovery Place Nature.
Opens Saturday at Discovery Place Nature, 1658 Sterling Road, Charlotte.
Admission: $8. Planetarium shows, which run hourly, are included with museum admission.
More info: www.nature.discoveryplace.org.