Digital system dazzles at Morehead Planetarium

Staff WriterJanuary 27, 2010 

— For four decades, North Carolina schoolchildren have piled into the star theater at UNC-Chapel Hill's Morehead Planetarium and Science Center and gawked at the strange contraption in the middle of the room.

The Zeiss VI Star Projector is an eye-catcher, for sure. But the massive, robotic projector - think oversize ant on spindly legs - is on its way out.

On Tuesday, university officials announced what they say is a quantum technological leap.

They will replace the analog projection system with a "fulldome" digital system that will bring far more dazzling, high-definition imagery to the 68-foot, domed star theater.

The transition was funded in large part by GlaxoSmithKline, the pharmaceuticals giant that donated $1.5 million to pay for the equipment and its installation.

"GlaxoSmithKline rarely makes gifts of this size and scope," said Janice Whitaker, the company's senior vice president for quality, global manufacturing and supply. "But the Morehead Planetarium is a rare gem."

The new fulldome theater , which seats 240 , will be the largest in the Southeast and the largest on a college campus anywhere in the world, said Todd Boyette, the center's director.

The planetarium needs to raise about $2 million more to produce its first series of new digital programs, Boyette said.

The new technology will allow the planetarium to offer shows with eight times the resolution of most high-definition televisions, projected over the entire face of the dome.

"It's like you're sticking your head up into this world and it immerses you," said Jay Heinz, the planetarium's digital production manager.

The planetarium has long played a key role in science education. More than half its annual visitors are in third and sixth grades, when the state curriculum emphasizes astronomy.

So those schoolchildren are the planetarium's chief customers, which means that while it is a nonprofit, public entity, it still competes with everything from video games to blue-skinned Navi flying through IMAX theaters.

"We're all competing for the time and minds of children," Boyette said. "They're very visually oriented."

In moving to the digital system, the planetarium will for the first time use a standard industry format employed by at least 400 other planetariums worldwide with fulldome systems. That means Morehead officials can make money by leasing programs to other planetariums and enhance their offerings by getting programming from elsewhere as well. The first three planned fulldome shows include a rocket-launch feature produced by the National Space Centre in England and another about black holes produced by Museum Victoria in Australia.

The theater has been closed for a month during the digital conversion but will open to the public Feb. 5. The old Zeiss projector will still be used for 18 months and then removed from the star theater and most likely put on display elsewhere in the planetarium.

eric.ferreri@newsobserver.com or 919-932-2008

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