By J. Eric Loberg Taylor Planetarium Director, Museum of the Rockies

What is a planetarium? Some people have never been inside one of these dome-covered rooms. Whenever I’m asked, I bring the person inside to look around at a place you have to see to really understand. When visitors walk under the Taylor Planetarium’s 40-foot dome at the Museum of the Rockies, they feel the need to sit and see what happens.

If you’ve been in a planetarium before, you probably remember seeing the sky in the comfort of the great indoors. This isn’t a replacement for the night sky, but a planetarium is the best way to learn the cosmos without worrying about a cold or cloudy night. At the Taylor, the skies move through the evening and through the seasons, filling in shapes and stories of the constellations.

A major remodel of the planetarium was completed in spring 2013, and a new digital theater was added. This allows us to bring in new shows from all over the world, and build incredible live night-sky expositions that visitors a view usually reserved for the great outdoors.

The technology jump was not a small one. We replaced old lighting with colorful LED’s, the audio system with new 5.1 surround sound (in the dome, it seems to come from every direction), and added blue and gold seats. But once the lights go down you’ll really notice the difference.

Nine computers run projections in “True 4K” displaying 4,000 pixels across our screen both side to side and front to back. Most movie theaters project that resolution side to side; it’s the resolution of your next TV in five years or so. Two projectors give a gentle overlap, allowing us to fill the entire screen with high-resolution imagery.

One computer runs the operator’s console, the other eight run portions of the screen. The computers each have high-end video and sync cards, which keep the entire rack synchronized. These computers each put out 1080p, merging eight HD screens together as a dome-shaped image.

Is your chair moving? No, but it will feel like it is as full-color imagery fills the 180-degree view above you. Images are projected at 60 frames per second so the audience gets a smooth ride to prevent motion sickness. This new technology puts the audience “in” the action. We can’t fly video cameras into the sun, black holes, or volcano vents, but we can animate these objects and orient them around your viewpoint.

Another common question I get is, “Was the picture 3D?” In the planetarium industry we call this an immersive environment, putting viewers in the middle of the scene, like 3D but without glasses. Phone applications can identify constellations, but it just isn’t the same as seeing the sky move around you. The Taylor’s live night-sky shows include a flight segment that feels like you’re on a spaceship moving amid the stars.

I first walked into the Taylor Planetarium shortly after it opened in 1990. This latest upgrade makes me feel like a kid again – the planetarium is so different, new, and amazing. Come and see our sky inside MOR, and get ready for a ride from the comfort of your chair!

Eric Loberg started at the Taylor Planetarium as a Montana State University student in 1997, using the original Digistar 1. He is now the Taylor Planetarium Director, and has overseen the recent conversion to Digistar 5. Visit museumoftherockies.org for current shows and times in the Taylor Planetarium.