"We can't wait. It's been a long time coming," said Executive Director Shelley McKamey.
The Taylor Planetarium first opened in 1989. It closed in September 2012 for remodeling. After 23 years and 1.3 million people sitting in its seats, the once-cutting edge planetarium with its Digistar 2 projection system had become so obsolete that donors asked that it be upgraded, McKamey said. One outdated show, for example, still referred to Pluto as a planet even though it was reclassified as a dwarf planet in 2006. Another show referred to the space shuttle as a current ground-breaking endeavor, even though the 30-year program ended July 21, 2011. The Digistar 2 projection system, which consisted of 100 projectors and eight speakers, was unable to play the high-definition digital shows that administrators would have liked to display.
A $1.5-million upgrade has turned the situation around, however, allowing the planetarium to offer accurate science, high-definition shows with digital surround sound, a new look, and viewing opportunities that are among the best in the world, said planetarium manager J. Eric Loberg.
The planetarium itself will look different because of new carpeting, LED lighting around the edge of the dome, and 110 new seats, which are blue and gold and individually molded according to their location in the planetarium.
The planetarium shows will also look and sound different because they will be projected onto a newly cleaned dome, and the Digistar 2 is being replaced by a state-of-the-art Digistar 5 projection system. The Digistar 5 only requires two projectors and will allow the planetarium to feature new high definition shows that focus on more than stars and planets, Loberg said. Viewers will be able to start in space, zoom down to Earth and explore life below the surface of the ocean, for example. One trip might take them soaring through the mountains around Bozeman, then swooping over to Yellowstone National Park to experience life in Yellowstone Lake. Another might let them visit Mount Everest.
New shows that will open with the planetarium's reopening include "Experience the Aurora," a full-dome program that will feature time lapse images of the Aurora Borealis. Crews operating high resolution digital cameras outfitted with fisheye lenses took the images over seven months in the Arctic Circle. Another new show -- "One Earth, One Sky" -- is a children's show featuring Sesame Street's Big Bird. "Big Sky Tonight," presented by Taylor Planetarium staff, will focus on Montana's skies, which are a unique sight for visitors who live in urban areas and value dark nights.
"A Montana Moment" a segment featuring MSU research, will be shown before most of the main shows if time permits, Loberg said. The popular "Season of Light," which has become a Christmas tradition for many visitors, will continue to be shown, but new visuals will accompany the narration by the late CBS broadcaster Charles Kuralt.
In addition to entertaining visitors, the newly remodeled planetarium will increase educational opportunities for K-12 students, MSU students and faculty, tourists, Montanans and the local community, McKamey said.
Loberg said he will now be able to change planetarium shows to fit the age of the audience. The museum will also partner with MSU faculty and students who want to use the planetarium for research and educational projects. Solar physics, computer science, optics, and the Department of Land Resources and Environmental Sciences are just a few departments and programs that might be interested in the opportunity.
The Associated Students of Montana State University (ASMSU) saw the educational potential of a remodeled planetarium, and made the first donation toward its renovation, McKamey said. The minutes of the ASMSU Senate's Feb. 9, 2012 meeting explained its $1,000 donation.
"The museum is a huge part of student life and its presence is well known among students," The minutes said. "ASMSU wants the museum to know the students support their efforts to renovate the museum. The efforts will help the planetarium to move into a digital age because their data and technology is currently so out of date. This will allow for the museum to attract an increased number of visitors and ultimately be beneficial to the entire MSU community as a whole."
Another MSU gift came from Vice President for Research, Creativity and Technology Transfer Tom McCoy whose office gave $10,000. MSU President Waded Cruzado also selected the planetarium project to receive $45,000 through the university's 2012 "Strategic Investment Proposal Process."
MSU's unprecedented support helped the museum raise money from private donors, McKamey said. Among those is a $300,000 top-off grant to be given by the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust after the museum raises $1.2 million. Names of all the donors will be listed at the Museum of the Rockies.
Evelyn Boswell, (406) 994-5135 or firstname.lastname@example.org