BOSTON — The skyline of Boston shrinks away and before long is replaced by the blue-green orb that is planet Earth. As Earth itself moves into the rearview mirror, the moon appears, gray and foreboding, but it, too, quickly recedes into a tiny pinpoint of light.
Soon visitors to the newly renovated Charles Hayden Planetarium are leaving the solar system on their virtual spaceship, traveling at faster-than-light speeds in search of other planets in the Milky Way. And they are doing it, of course, without ever leaving their seats.
The 52-year-old planetarium at Boston's Museum of Science has staked its future on the success of a $9 million facelift the museum hopes will instill in a new generation a sense of awe for the beauty of the cosmos and the mysteries it holds.
After being closed for more than a year for renovations, the planetarium has been retrofitted with sophisticated new gadgetry and reopens to the public today with the world premiere of "Undiscovered Worlds: The Search Beyond Our Sun."
Dubbed the most technologically advanced digital theater in New England, the planetarium uses a powerful new star projector — called the Zeiss Starmaster — to display on the planetarium's 57-foot domed ceiling more than 9,000 celestial objects — from bright nearby stars to distant, murky galaxies — all so realistic one might forget it's not the heavens on a crystal clear night.
"You can actually bring binoculars in here, look at those same objects, and they look just like they do in the real sky," boasts Daryl Davis, the planetarium's systems coordinator and the man who runs the starmaster, one of only two in the United States.
The fiber optics video projection and animation system not only creates the illusion of traveling through space, but through time, as well.
The planetarium has averaged about 185,000 annual visitors in recent years, down from the 260,000 it averaged from the mid-1990s to 2003, according to the museum. The planetarium's aging technology was cited as one factor in the drop, along with competition from other ticketed venues at the museum and fewer school field trips.