Science Museum Says Goodnight Galaxies, Hello Moon 

Following budget cuts, planetarium shuttered after nearly three decades.

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Nearly 30 years after showing its first planetarium program, the Science Museum of Virginia has shown its last — for the foreseeable future, anyway.

Museum officials confirm that the Digistar II computer projection system that once powered the shows at the domed theater has been mothballed following a recent breakdown.

For Ken Wilson, the museum's former planetarium director, it's “the end of an era.”

Before the theater's opening in 1983, Wilson says, the plan was to purchase the standard projection system that relied on light bulbs and a complex system of motors to give the heavenly bodies the appearance of movement.

But then a former museum director, Paul Knappenberger Jr., saw the Digistar I in action. The new technology allowed Wilson and the other programmers to jolt the viewers through space and project images of the galaxy as it has changed over time. When a Digistar I projector was installed at the museum in 1983, it was the first of its kind to find a permanent home in a planetarium.

The museum upgraded to a Digistar II projector in the 1990s, says Wilson, who was let go in a round of staff cutbacks in 2007. “It's just sad that there won't be any planetarium programs,” he says, “because for years it's been something that's been a part of the museum.”

Museum officials say they believe a new exhibit is an able replacement. The recently debuted Science on a Sphere projects digital photographic images of moons and other planetary bodies onto a hanging white globe.

“Astronomy is about tapping into the inspirational power of the cosmos,” says museum director Rich Conti. “You can't do that just blazing through space with streaking stars. We're still going to be exploring the heavens, but we're going to be doing it with a new platform.” The Digistar II has been refurbished.

The museum's budget has taken a significant enough hit in recent years that it can't afford to upgrade its planetarium projector. Cutting-edge projection systems run in the million-dollar range, Conti says.

Whether Science on a Sphere becomes a permanent exhibit will depend on how well it draws people, and their dollars, to the museum, he says: “We're going to try this out and see what the audiences think.”

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