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Starstruck

Inside the $9 million renovation to the Science Museum's planetarium, and why it could bring in a new generation of visitors

By Sam Allis
Globe Staff / November 27, 2010

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Look up at the night sky and feast on more than 9,000 stars, twinkling in stunning clarity. But then seconds later, the sky reverts back to what it looked like 10,000 years ago. Then watch as the tiny dots that represent the planets suddenly mushroom, allowing you to float so closely above them that you see their surfaces.

Then it’s time to hit the heavens. After lift-off, the planets disappear in the rear-view mirror. So does our solar system as we move to the edge of the Milky Way, and on beyond our galaxy. As we travel further and further out, cascades of blinking green dots, each one a galaxy, flood the sky. Then huge, near-solid swaths of galaxies appear in an overwhelming array of different colors.

After years of offering visitors to its Charles Hayden Planetarium a static view of space focused mostly on stars, planets, and constellations, an entirely new, and more interactive, experience is scheduled to open at the Museum of Science on Feb. 13. The stars of the new $9 million creation are a powerful projector, the Zeiss Starmaster, which will show the night sky, and two Sony digital projectors that can simulate space travel. “We’ve got the Cadillac now,’’ says Darryl Davis, planetarium systems coordinator.

To buy the Cadillac, the museum used $3 million from the Charles Hayden Foundation, named for the Boston financier who built the Hayden Planetariums in New York City and Boston, and raised the rest from private donations.

The upgrades come at an important moment in Boston for cultural organizations whose survival hinges on attracting tourists and natives alike. Competition for visitors among Boston’s cultural institutions is growing more fierce by the month. The Museum of Fine Arts last week opened to the public its mammoth Art of the Americas wing. The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum is scheduled to open an expansion in early 2012. Also coming is the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate adjacent to the JFK Library.

But while much of the area’s cultural landscape focuses on celebrating our past, from art to politics, what separates the Museum of Science is its ability to probe the future.

Next year’s opening show on the ceiling of the 57-foot planetarium dome, “Undiscovered Worlds: The Search Beyond Our Sun,’’ is about the hunt for planets in space. That theme was hatched after Hayden staffers polled astronomers at MIT and the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics to see what’s hot in the world of astronomy today. The answer was unequivocal: the search for exoplanets.

Some 500 have been discovered in the past 15 years alone, and scientists expect many more will be identified as time goes on. Just earlier this month, the first new planet from a galaxy outside the Milky Way was identified (and it is 20 percent larger than Jupiter). As the number grows, so too does the possibility of finding the elusive habitable planet.

“That’s the ultimate question — are there other civilizations out there,’’ says David Charbonneau, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center in Cambridge, whom the museum consulted for the project.

Also hot is the pursuit of dark matter and dark energy, which together represent 95 percent on the universe. Scientists don’t know what either one is, but they do know that dark energy is accelerating the expansion of the universe. Most recently, a black hole found in its infancy made news.

With its new digital technology, the planetarium can just as easily shoot viewers into the cosmos or help them examine a strand of DNA. Charbonneau, for one, says, “Let’s go into someone’s blood stream.’’

Construction on the planetarium began back in January, and before long, the only thing left of the Hayden, which opened in 1958, was its concrete outside wall. Talk about extreme makeovers.

“This was a gutting job,’’ says Paul Fontaine, the museum’s vice president of education. “We’ve dreamed of a new facility for nearly five years now. Our consumers are pretty sophisticated technology consumers today. It became clear that young people weren’t as inspired by a planet show as their parents were. We were driving a 40-year-old car. We bought spare parts off of eBay.’’

Mark Petersen, whose Loch Ness Productions creates digital, print, and audio media for planetarium theaters and museum exhibits, also follows the planetarium market. According to him, there are about 1,600 planetariums in the United States today. While there are no statistics available on the number of people visiting planetariums, Peterson says that an average of 40 new planetarium theaters have in opened each of the last 10 years. On the other hand, others have closed.

“What’s happening now is other planetarium theaters that have been scraping by for decades, nursing the film gear and surviving on flaccid budgets, also find themselves urgently having to get with the times — and funds to renovate aren’t always a priority, so they face closure,’’ he says. “It’s simply Darwinian: adapt or die. No trending there, just life.’’

The future of planetariums will involve far more of the interactivity that already exists in them. David Weinrich, incoming president of the International Planetarium Society, says he helped build the first public planetarium in West Africa, which opened in Ghana in early 2009. The first program there, he explains, was run by a person sitting with a laptop at the Hayden Planetarium in New York, who narrated the show and took questions from the audience in Ghana over the Internet.

The unfinished scene at the Boston planetarium speaks to a quantum leap in audience experience: new dome, new theater-in-the-round seating, new sound system, new lighting, and at the heart of it all, new projectors that illustrate the science of space as it’s never been seen before in Boston.

The custom-made Starmaster sits in the center of the circular room, hidden for now under a white sheet. It is one of only two such models in this country. The steel and aluminum projector is actually a ball 30 inches in diameter mounted more than eight feet high, and has 12 small lenses located all over it. (Museum staffers refer to it as “the death star.’’) It resembles something out of “The War of the Worlds’’ when it rises even higher on its metal legs.

The two powerful Sony digital projectors, each 4 by 2 feet, are mounted directly across from each other to present seamless full-dome images. A test room with a 10-foot dome was created in the bowels of the museum to perfect programs that will later appear upstairs.

The Hayden uses a software package it bought from Sky-Skan, a company based in Nashua. There are five databases built into the package such as the Digital Universe, Protein Data, and Global Weather. Sky-Scan updates its package when needed, such as the discovery of a new star, and planetarium staff can add whatever material it wants as well.

All planetariums have access to the same databases, says Charbonneau. “The edge,’’ he says, “is the software to process data and repackage it into a show.’’

In the past, Charbonneau says, the show at the Museum of Science was “a static star field that rotated overhead.’’ But those days will be gone come February and a new, more modern, experience will emerge. Says Charbonneau: “It has this ‘Where would you like to go?’ interactive feeling.’’

Sam Allis can be reached at allis@globe.com.