What You Can Learn on a Visit to a Planetarium

Lisa R. Parker

A Planetarium is a specially designed dome-shaped theatre for viewing educational and interesting astronomical shows. What you learn will depend on the planetarium you visit, the shows they offer and perhaps even who you visit with. A group of 11 year old school kids will learn different aspects of astronomy to say an astrology group watching a specific show about the 12 signs of the zodiac. Most planetariums seem to have their standard pre-recorded shows but also offer themed shows for the time of year e.g Autumn Sky, Christmas Star. Some shows are just recordings that you watch whilst others may have a presenter who is available to answer questions. Nearly all planetariums will have static or interactive displays in their building from which you can learn a lot before you even enter the theatre’s dome. Again, most larger planetariums will have a telescope which allows you to view that night’s sky, weather permitting. This is a great advantage of planetariums in that you get to view the stars whether it is cloudy or not and you don’t have to worry about being cold.

Some shows are specifically aimed at toddlers and young school children, whilst others will be aimed at older school kids. Planetariums are great places to visit as a trip for a group such as special needs or autistic children, senior citizen outings. Some planetariums are even offering their theatres for parties, functions and just image your wedding dinner under the stars! Examples of shows available that I have come across in my research on planetariums include titles such as: Aurora, Summer Sky, Winter Tales, Legends of the Night Sky – Orion, Zodiac, Stellar Evolution, Black Holes, The Sky Tonight, The Moon and so many more… Planetariums are also used by groups training to navigate by the stars.

So what will the experience be like? Awesome and unforgettable – I still remember my school visit to a Planetarium some 25 years ago – before the advent of 3D imagery in planetarium presentations. I certainly don’t need an excuse to take my 3 kids on a visit to one when they are a little older and will be able to appreciate the information and not just the amazing visual spectacle. Worldwide, most planetariums provide shows to the general public. You should be able to choose from pre-recorded or live presentation formats. Live format is preferred by many venues because a live expert presenter can answer any on-the-spot questions raised by the audience.

3-D digital planetariums have been in existence since the 1990’s and these add a valuable sense of real depth to the whole experience rather than the night sky appearing as a star map! This new virtual reality capability to enable the viewer to travel through the universe provides important educational benefits because it vividly conveys that space has real depth. This in turn will assist audiences to leave behind the misconception that the stars are stuck on the inside of a giant celestial sphere and instead to understand the true layout of the solar system and beyond.

For example, a planetarian (presenter of a show) can now ‘fly’ the audience towards one of the familiar constellations such as Orion, thus revealing that the stars which appear to make up a shape from our earth-bound viewpoint are at vastly different distances from Earth and so not connected at all, except in human imagination and mythology. This experience can be much more educationally beneficial than other demonstrations particularly for those people who are especially visual or spatially-aware. Music is an all important element to complete the experience of a good planetarium show. Music featured is usually space-themed or from the genres of space music, space rock, or classical music. In fact I have even seen shows advertised as being set to Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon!

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