Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Largest Planetarium Dome - Infinite In All Directions

I read today in "Sky & Telescope" about the Shoemaker Open-Sky Planetarium in Chico, California. What's so special about this facility? Its outdoors; there is no dome. For all intents and purposes, it is a traditional planetarium minus a projector and a dome on which to project.
Who'd have thought?
For the past few years, I've been toying with the idea of either making a portable planetarium or building a small dome in some equally small community. Well, this little idea pretty much blew me away. It seems that all this time I was missing the point; who needs a portable planetarium when you have the whole sky, and let's face it, it follows you wherever you go. Think about it; all you really need is a laser pointer. The visitors can bring their own lawn chairs or other contrivances (inflatable mattresses to basically look straight up would be nice).
What is needed to make this idea really work is other media.
At the Shoemaker, they have computer guided telescopes with cameras attached. Each of the visitors is given a small handheld viewer to see the objects selected.
Nice. Complicated but nice.
What makes a proper planetarium work is the other media present. The sky by itself is great, but if you're talking about, say, M57, the Ring Nebula in Lyra, you need to go a step further, otherwise you're pointing towards what appears to be a blank spot between two stars. Either a canned image or a live CCD image would be just spectacular. The trick is how to present it. Perhaps an LCD projector and screen located in the center of the gathering, one that can be completely blackened with a simple shutter mechanism.
This has potential. Must dwell on this some more.

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