B.C. Kowalski/City Pages
Chris Janssen in the newly remodeled planetarium at Wausau West High School. The planetarium offers public shows every Friday at 6 pm.
One minute you’re looking at the rotating planet Earth in its orbit around the sun. Then suddenly you fly out past Mars, Jupiter, then float in the asteroid belt, particles flying past you as zoom in on individual known asteroids. Then you zip out to Saturn, Neptune, the Kuiper Belt or to Planet IX, a newly discovered but yet-unseen planet in the outer reaches of our solar system.
It feels like you’ve been transported into the cosmos as you sit in the theater-style room at Wausau West. But not just any room. The newly remodeled, recently opened planetarium just hosted its first public show Friday and the results of the nearly $400,000 project are impressive.
“It’s a total geek heaven,” says planetarium director Chris Janssen. A digital system projects images onto a tilted dome — the same kind of system used to make sci-fi movies. Forget the neck craning of past planetariums. Janssen says they made sure the projection dome tilts as much as possible so the audience can feel like they’re traveling into space, not simply staring up at it. Janssen tweaked the result 48-seat theater experience down to the finest details, from the colors of the 92 LED lights that line the dome to the under-lighting beneath the seats.
One of the cooler aspects of the planetarium’s system: New programs are being created all the time and can be downloaded at the touch of a button. Janssen demonstrates this by downloading a program about Planet IX, based on a paper that came out that week. Within minutes we were flying toward the planet, its surface a scientific guess because the planet’s existence has been proven only by its effect on other objects.
This quick-touch program selection also allows Janssen to answer questions in real time, with a visual. At a recent showing, a young audience member asked to see the moon. Janssen not only was able to pull it up quickly and “fly” the audience there, but the model he found contained a stunning amount of detail.
The educational opportunities with the new system are enormous, Janssen says. Instead of simply walking students through a recitation of facts about the solar system, for instance, interactive programs will land students on various planets. A student could choose between using solar power, batteries or gas to fuel their lander— but the solar power might not help much on a faraway planet such as Neptune.
Funding for the planetarium renovations and upgrades came from a $230,000 grant from the local Walter Alexander Foundation and about $150,000 from the school district’s building improvements fund.
The planetarium offers public programs every Friday at 6 pm through May 5—mostly astronomy shows, but also Blu-ray movie releases and a Valentine’s Day-inspired show Romancing the Stars Feb. 10 for adult couples. Blu-ray party admission $2; full dome astronomy shows $5 adults, $4 seniors and under 18. See WausauSpace.org for reservations and schedule.