The OMSI Planetarium

It's your space. Help us upgrade Oregon's beloved planetarium.

Jun 13, 2017

Project update 1 of 10

The History of OMSI's Planetarium

Thank you for helping us raise over $6,000 in one week! Here’s the storied history of OMSI’s planetarium, beginning nearly 70 years ago.

Since OMSI debuted its first planetarium on NE Hassalo Street in 1950, technology has leaped at warp speed from its new beginnings to the current rapid-fire and constant evolution of all things electronic. Back then, state-of-the-art meant creating a star field using a simple Spitz projector. Now it means digital full-dome video, audio, and thousands of images combined to give you the sensation of a three-dimensional journey across the cosmos. But to really appreciate this jump in digital technology, you need to look at the changes at OMSI over the past 60 years. In June of 1950, the OMSI Planetarium was the first planetarium built in the Pacific Northwest. At that time, there were only five other planetariums in the United States: Los Angeles, New York, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Chicago. The 16-foot silver dome sat just outside of the first OMSI on NE Hassalo Street. The new theater could seat 80 visitors in its air-conditioned room. At the heart of the planetarium was the Spitz Model-A projector, a hollow 12-sided polyhedron pierced with only 200 tiny holes, and a light bulb inside for projecting the stars onto the dome above visitor’s heads.

Let’s go back to 1967. NASA’s space program was in full swing and almost every kid in Portland wanted to be an astronaut. That year, the Kendall Planetarium opened at OMSI’s Washington Park location, where it had moved from NE Hassalo in 1957. Under the distinctive blue and green 32-foot geodesic dome, the Planetarium seated 160 people. A 400-pound GOTO star projector created almost 1,000 stars using 32 giant lenses, two 600 watt bulbs, and a pinhole mask. State-of-the-art had jumped from a simple projector capable of displaying a few stars to not only stars but clouds and the Milky Way. One of the challenges facing new staff was memorizing the extensive manual control panel and locating buttons in a dark theater. In the 1970’s, 150+ slide projectors were placed around the dome, which allowed a wide range of images and effects to be used with the star fields. Staff built special effects projectors out of surprising materials including tin cans and soda bottles! Visitors were treated to meteor showers, auroras, comets, and stunning views of the earth from space. Laser Light Shows were integrated to the planetarium schedule in 1984 and quickly became a true legacy even today. Laser technology was developed by Laser Fantasy International for planetariums.

During OMSI’s time at Washington Park, the Planetarium staff created, packaged, and sold their planetarium shows. Some were stand-alone; others were companion shows for museum exhibits. Shows specific to natural and astronomical phenomena were also produced, including shows examining the 1979 total solar eclipse and the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens. In addition to the planetarium theater was a fully equipped shop, darkroom, and sound room where each part of a planetarium shows was created. This continued well into the 90’s as new innovative shows were produced using slides, special effects and in-house audio production.

In 1992, OMSI moved to its present location on SE Water Avenue. The planetarium’s GOTO star projector moved too, settling at the new M. J. Murdock Sky Theater. The Planetarium theater is a 52-foot dome with seating for 200, making it the largest planetarium dome in the Pacific Northwest and the cornerstone of numerous astronomy events each year. This was a time for the most amazing changes yet in the planetarium. Projection and sound systems were automated and educators began using computers to create new effects, opening new and amazing opportunities for planetarium shows. Technology look another leap forward in spring 1999 when OMSI retired its 30 year old GOTO star projector to make room for the Digistar II projector and SPICE theater control system. The digital star field of Digistar II contains 10,000 stars, ten times more than the GOTO. It can simulate stars, planets, comets, nebulae, constellations, and other standard planetarium objects with accurate size, location, and relative brightness. Digistar II lets audiences travel through three-dimensional space in real time and view scenes they would see if they were really flying in space. The universe of the Digistar II extends 900 million light years from the Sun in all directions, and can take viewers instantly to any location within that range. Digistar II can represent the skies as they appeared 418 million years ago in Earth’s past, or offer a glimpse at how they will look 418 million years into the future. The planetarium reached yet another milestone in the spring of 2003 with the donation of SkyVision, a multimedia technology video projector system. The new system complimented Digistar II, allowing the planetarium dome to be completely covered with real and computer-generated images to create a completely immersive experience. SkyVision’s six high definition video projectors immerse the audience in a full 360 degree video scene on the 52-foot wide dome. The system stitches or overlaps the projector’s digital images together at the edges, creating a seamless environment. SkyVision is used in conjunction with three video projectors and 54 slide projectors, as well as the Digistar II projector and SPICE theater control system. Enhanced image clarity and huge leaps in creative potential allowed planetarium staff to present quality astronomy programs about which they could only dream about before. To thank the generosity of donors, the planetarium changed its name from Murdock Sky Theater to Murdock Planetarium. Another jump in technology took place in the winter of 2004 when the planetarium upgraded to Digistar 3, replacing both SkyVision and Digistar II. Digistar 3 uses powerful graphics hardware and software to generate immersive full-dome images on the interior surface of a dome, integrating all-dome video, real time 3D computer graphics, and a complete digital astronomy package. Digistar 3 has a database of 2.5 million stars - a far cry from the little Spitz project and its 200 stars! Using the existing full dome system, Digistar 3 takes yet another technological step and projects stars in full color. New images and content can be added in a matter of minutes rather than days. Digistar 3 is a fully integrated system, which replaces traditional planetarium equipment such as slide projectors, special effects projectors, and video projectors. Graphics and audio can both be manipulated in real time, making shows dynamic, interactive experiences. In that same year, the Kendall family restored the name of the original planetarium with generous gift to OMSI. OMSI’s Kendall Planetarium Theater’s mission is to use the unique environment of the Planetarium to create exciting, entertaining, and educational experiences that motivate people to explore our universe. Few of us alive today will actually venture into space, but our fascination remains universal. Space, our last frontier, inspires wonder and curiosity; presents a challenge to be met, and provides a rich opportunity for learning, development and fun. Through the Kendall Planetarium, visitors to OMSI can virtually travel through space in real time. Access to this specialized technology places each viewer in an interactive environment promoting participatory learning that uses all the senses. Abstract concepts take on concrete meaning as viewers explore the universe, learn about the origins of life, and see the forces that shaped the earth and continue to transform the galaxy and universe. The Kendall Planetarium is our region’s unique vehicle for these learning experiences. Our ongoing technological evolution will enhance these experiences for visitors of all ages and position the Kendall Planetarium to continue its leadership role in education and technology.

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