Thinktank Planetarium

Last Friday I took a trip to Birmingham where I visited the Thinktank, Birmingham’s museum of science. Part of the reason for my trip was to see my friend Dave who is a planetarium presenter there. Thinktank is a huge, new building that contains an IMAX cinema, a department of a local university and several floors of interactive science exhibits covering Birmingham's industrial heritage, present day scientific issues in biology and technology and a look at what the future may hold for us. In the "thinkahead" section is the planetarium. It is totally digital, making use of an array of digital projectors to build up a full-dome image. I know that some people prefer the traditional Zeiss projectors, but digital projection does give you the flexibility to show so many different things including photographs, animations of the planets, 3D trips through space and full-dome video. A disadvantage of digital projection is that it makes it very easy to create 'canned' shows that just play back with a pre-recorded show. I'm glad to say that Thinktank is aware of the importance of presenter-led shows and seem to have the right combination of special effects and proper astronomy.

The show I saw was a run-through of the spring night-sky and started off in Birmingham with with cloud and street lights obscuring the view. Not only does this opening let see the limited view you get from a city due to light pollution, but it helps your eyes to adapt to the dark. After a tour through some of the planets, that you can currently see with the naked eye in the evening, we were then transported to a dark sky site. This was accompanied by "Wows!" from the children (and probably some of the adults) present as they suddenly could see thousands of stars. Dave described several constellation patterns before taking us on a trip away from the Earth into our local stellar neighbourhood. This trip drastically distorted the familiar constellation shapes and was a great illustration of the 3D nature of space.

After the show, Dave was able to show me some of the things that the DigiStar 3 can do. It is a truely impressive piece of kit that has a plethora of great features. It behaves like a souped-up combination of Stellarium and Celestia with movie and multi-wavelength capabilities. It was so cool to be surrounded by the Milky Way as it looks to a radio telescope at 408 MHz and switch to a gamma-ray view of the sky at the touch of a button. Thanks to Dave, I was treated to some of the fantastic shows that the Thinktank planetarium presenters are developing. I am now bright green with envy and wish I had my own planetarium to play about with.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Monday 01st May 2006 (19:08 UTC) | Permalink
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