The planetarium at Union Station is again reaching for the stars.
After years of showing feature films on its 60-foot domed ceiling, the Gottlieb Planetarium has returned to interactive programming, taking visitors on “live” guided tours of the cosmos.
Eight times a week, a Science City educator explains the mysteries of the night sky, now using special software that allows the planetarium to customize shows and tailor them to Kansas City.
“As far as I know, we’re the only planetarium that is using it as part of our active programming,” said Patrick Hess, planetarium specialist at Science City.
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The software, called WorldWide Telescope, was developed by Microsoft and made available for free. It allows planetariums to show guests a real-time version of the night sky.
“Basically, WorldWide Telescope is a map of the visible universe,” said Rick Henderson, president of the Astronomical Society of Kansas City, which has a partnership with the Gottlieb Planetarium. “It allows you to create scripts or customize programs. It has a huge database to create whatever kind of tour you want.”
The program allows the planetarium to show an accurate view of the night sky over Kansas City. Then it can zoom up to the North Pole for a look at the stars from there. And it can just as easily take you to Mars or our neighbor galaxy Andromeda.
The software gives viewers a 3D experience without having to wear glasses.
Five years ago the planetarium introduced a digital projection system that replaced the old, analog star ball technology. That has allowed it to show a growing number of entertaining films made for a dome format.
“Because of this whole digital revolution in planetariums, you get a lot of cool, 3D computer-generated special effects movies and things like that,” Hess said. “But there’s been a tendency in the planetarium world to get away from that core astronomy education and just kind of go full-out entertainment.”
There will still be room for that at Union Station. But Hess wanted a more interactive show. He spent about 200 hours working with the WorldWide Telescope software to develop the show called Stargaze KC.
The show will be revised with the seasons to reflect changes in the sky. A winter version is now showing. During the presentation, the educator can customize the display and pause to make a point or take questions.
Henderson said he hopes the next step for the planetarium is to upgrade its projectors to allow higher resolution of the images made possible by the software.
Attendance at the planetarium has grown 66 percent since it went digital in 2010. Aside from regularly scheduled shows, the space can be rented for private parties. There have been three weddings there recently.
Stargaze KC was launched quietly in September and was greeted with enthusiasm on Union Station’s Facebook page.
“There is a pent-up demand” for an interactive experience, said Michael Tritt, chief marketing officer at Union Station. “We expect not only individual families but groups to embrace us again. It’s a great scout program. It’s a great field-trip program. For that matter, it’s a great birthday party program.”
▪ Length: About 40 minutes.
▪ Admission: $6.
▪ Schedule: 3 p.m. Tuesday through Friday; 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. weekends.