UMD has a jewel in plain sight—the Marshall W. Alworth Planetarium, a dome cleaved onto the western side of the campus. Inside this unique chamber, there is hardly a straight line except for the floor.
Audience chatter dissipates as the lights dim and a voice from the back of the room welcomes us on a journey to the celestial bodies, with a little history and some physics thrown in.
A Spitz Star Machine dominates the room. This spherical projector splashes pinpricks of light across the domed ceiling in a replica of the constellations native to our local skies. The Spitz was manufactured 50 years ago, but it’s still accurate. In the cosmic scheme of things, half a century is but the blink of an eye. From our perspective, stars appear static, but these distant balls of nuclear fusion are ping-ponging around the cosmos—a phenomenon the Spitz gives us a rare chance to witness in simulation.
Photo by Ryan Swanson
The Darling Telescope, on display at the Marshall W. Alworth Planetarium, is a nine-inch Brashear donated in 1942 by John Darling’s private observatory.
Adding to its coolness, the four cardinal directions appear on the wall in a 1960s-era retro font, and speakers provide movie quality sound, narrating the celestial navigation in IMAX, provided by new Swedish software designed for the parabolic ceiling. The software is updated as new data from space probes in our solar system send information back to Earth.
Sound is redirected off the ceiling into the center of the room and greatly amplified near the Spitz. Think of a magnifying glass directing sound waves all to one spot, so a whisper is clearly heard six feet away.
Augmenting this tool with a brief lecture from a live person (physics student Joshua Wasniewski on the night I was there) is a good idea when dealing with such a techie subject. Wasniewski posed playful questions to engage the audience prior to a 30-minute documentary featuring the mellifluous voice of British actor Patrick Stewart.
The pace is quick enough to avoid bogging down amateur stargazers in too much detail. After all, I paid to come here and, to some extent, I want to be entertained. Amenities include a fog machine, but it’s only used once a year when a laser light show welcomes incoming freshmen.
On a creature comfort level, the theater is agreeably warm for 11 months out of the year, and during the one week that passes for summer, the air conditioning works just fine. Cushy seats with ample armrests recline as needed for easy viewing.
Think budget-friendly IMAX theater with less crowds than Canal Park, and did I mention the free parking? There are plenty of spots in UMD’s Lot A during the planetarium’s show times.
Exhibits outside the theater include paintings of manmade spacecraft and stellar phenomena, all punched up with black lights. The depictions are a tad dated, but nothing egregious. Wear white clothes for added effect.
Surrounding the theater is a macaroni-shaped room where a large flat-screen television shows 3-D scenes from space. Behind a glass display, models of the Voyager I and II spacecraft are augmented by explanations of their continuing mission. The adjoining gift shop sells glow-in-the-dark toys and books for novice to veteran cosmologists. (13 planets? Is that what we’re at now?)
When the entertainment experience is this good, I can hardly wait for the sky to get dark so I can witness the real light show for myself later tonight.
Public shows every Friday at 7 p.m. and Saturdays at 2 and 7 p.m. Wednesday nights at 7 p.m. are free. Tickets are $5 for adults, $3 for seniors, children 6-12, and students with ID. Children under 5 are free. Tickets available online at scse.d.umn.edu/marshall-w-alworth-planetarium/tickets. Special rates for birthday parties and other private events.