Sky’s the limit

Cutting-edge upgrades transform planetarium at the EcoTarium

By Pamela H. Sacks

TELEGRAM & GAZETTE

2007

The actor Tom Hanks is ready to take you on a tour of the universe.

And he’s likely to be an able guide. Mr. Hanks, after all, played the part of astronaut Jim Lovell in the 1995 film “Apollo 13.” Remember “Houston, we’ve got a problem here?”

Mr. Hanks narrates “Passport to the Universe,” one of three initial programs to be shown in the EcoTarium’s Alden Planetarium on its new digital surround-sound system.

The planetarium, with its 40-foot dome, closed in August for an overhaul. It reopens Tuesday with state-of-the-art equipment that places it among only 100 planetariums in the world where sophistication is concerned, according to Alexander Goldowsky, the EcoTarium’s director of exhibits and education.

The old setup allowed an audience to view the night sky as it appears from Earth.

The digital system provides 360-degree video projection.

“You can travel through the universe and see how things would look from the surface of the moon looking back, or the surface of Mars, or Pluto, or beyond,” Mr. Goldowsky said.

With the $600,000 upgrade, the EcoTarium can take advantage of programming created by numerous top institutions. Mr. Hanks’ tour, produced by the American Museum of Natural History, combines NASA imagery with pictures taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. Based on mathematical models, “Passport” presents scientific visualizations of the future, as the Milky Way collides with other galaxies.

“It’s both beautiful and scientifically interesting,” Mr. Goldowsky said, adding that the $30,000 Bose sound system significantly enhances the experience.

Two other programs take different approaches. “The Problem with Pluto” features animated teenage characters who narrate a quest to find out what makes a planet a planet. “Secret of the Cardboard Rocket” stars two curious youngsters who turn a cardboard carton into a rocket and blast off to explore the solar system. That show, recommended for children 3 to 10 years of age and their families, has particularly spectacular effects, created by George Lucas’ Skywalker Ranch.

“There is cool animation coming out for these systems,” Mr. Goldowsky remarked. “It’s exciting to be on the cutting edge of that.”

Stephen M. Pitcher, interim president of the EcoTarium, said the science and nature museum made the decision to invest in its planetarium after a study showed that 6 percent of visitors chose to view its astronomical display. A team at the museum discovered that similarly sized planetariums attracted more visitors. The museum expects to continue with improvements, including new carpeting and lighting.

“We will be the only publicly available, fully domed experience like this in Massachusetts,” Mr. Pitcher said last week.

“We’re very excited about it. It’s going to give us the chance to have something unique.”

In the future, the EcoTarium intends to use the planetarium for shows featuring underwater exploration and terrestrial environments. “Just as it can take you to outer space, it can take you beneath the ocean,” Mr. Goldowsky said. “It’s very convincing, kind of like scuba diving.”

Meanwhile, Mr. Goldowsky and his team have their work cut out for them. Becoming adept at using the system is a little like learning to be a pilot.

“We need to learn how to fly the system,” Mr. Goldowsky said with a laugh. “We have to get our staff trained on how to get people from here to Pluto and back safely. You literally can get lost out in space.”