Planetariums, observatories: Eyes on skies

Life is full of mystery, and we need only look skyward for evidence. Some stars rise and set. Others orbit. We are only beginning to understand our place in the universe, but people have long paid attention, with awe and wonder.

Christians believe the Three Wise Men used the brilliant Star of Bethlehem to find the birthplace of Jesus. NASA’s space shuttle Discovery this month visited the International Space Station, which exists to better understand the environment of outer space.

Now a new planetarium theater – a place that can recreate the day or night sky exactly by projecting stars and planets, the sun and the moon – has opened at Milwaukee Public Museum. The Daniel M. Soref Planetarium, a $2.6 million project that adds a new dimension to the museum’s 10-year-old IMAX dome theater, is the state’s – if not the Midwest’s – largest and most modern way to study the heavens.

The screen is 74 feet in diameter and six stories high. Projection and computer technology are cutting edge; digital video and the theater’s previous projection capabilities effortlessly turn the giant dome into a constellation-filled sky, then a multimedia history show.

“The Egyptians didn’t know why the stars moved. Neither did they try to find out. It was the work of the gods,” a narrator says, during “Stars of the Pharaohs,” a film that is a part of one of the museum’s new planetarium shows. (Other shows are “Wonders of the Universe” and “Sonic Vision.”)

Star and sky watching have long been a way to determine time, season and date. Moonlight lengthened the workday. The phases of the moon determined the first Egyptian calendar.

“The sky embodied the balance between order and chaos, death and rebirth,” the narrator explains. We take much of this for granted today.

Jeff Bass, executive director of the planetarium and the IMAX, considers the addition “a perfect fit for our education mission,” providing “a comprehensive view of the world as we know it” and “a perfect complement to all the sciences” represented in museum exhibits.

“Every civilization defines itself based on how it thinks the world works,” he observes.

The planetarium also is a way to make the IMAX a more versatile space, during a time of major transition and financial challenges at the museum. No public money was spent on the project, says Ellen Burmeister, museum public relations spokeswoman.

She says fewer IMAX films are being produced but there is renewed/expanded interest in astronomy, making this a logical addition.

“We have no chunk ’o’ Mars” to display, she notes, so this is a way to “add another element to the museum.”

For more: 414-278-2700, www.mpm.edu. The Milwaukee Public Museum is at 800 W. Wells St., Milwaukee.

Wisconsin has a rich history in astronomy research. Near Lake Geneva, for example, is the century-old Yerkes Observatory, whose visitors included Albert Einstein and Edwin Hubble. One of Yerkes’ five telescopes has a 40-inch wide refractor lens, the largest in the world, mainly because the technology turned obsolete soon after the lens was finished.

Yerkes Observatory, 373 W. Geneva St., Williams Bay, is open on Saturdays. For more: 262-245-5555, www.astro.uchicago.edu/yerkes/index.html. The University of Chicago this year sold the site to a developer of luxury homes, but the observatory will remain accessible to the public.

For more: 262-245-5555, www.astro.uchicago.edu/yerkes/index.html.

UW Space Place, 2300 S. Park St., Madison, since 1990 has been a hub for hands-on activities and learning about astronomy and space science. Free workshops for ages 6-10 are offered twice a month. A newsy “Eyes on the Skies” astronomy presentation occurs monthly.

For more: 608-262-4779, www.spaceplace.wisc.edu.

Here are some of the other Wisconsin observatories and planetariums that offer shows for the public. Reservations are advised.

Buckstaff Planetarium, 800 Algoma Blvd., Oshkosh. Next public show: “A Deeper Look at Orion,” Jan. 5. For more: 920-424-0287, www.uwosh.edu/science_outreach/planetariumm.htm.

Charles Z. Horwitz Planetarium, Retzer Nature Center, S14 W28167 Madison St., Waukesha. Next public shows: “The Season of Light,” Dec. 22, and “Winter Sky Legends,” Jan. 21. For more: 262-548-7801, www.waukesha.k12.wi.us/planet.

L.E. Phillips Planetarium, Phillips Science Hall, UW-Eau Claire. Next public shows: “Mr. Genius Tours the Solar System,” Jan. 6, and “More Than Meets the Eye” (for ages 10 and up), Jan. 9. For more: 715-836-3148, www.uwec.edu/planetarium.

Madison Metropolitan School District Planetarium, 201 S. Gammon Road, Madison. Next public show: “Skywatching,” Jan. 17. For more: 608-663-6102, www.madison.k12.wi.us/planetarium.

UW-La Crosse Planetarium, Cowley Hall, UW-La Crosse. Next public show: “Explorers of Mauna Kea,” Feb. 5, 12, 19 and 26. For more: 608-785-8669, www.uwlax.edu/planetarium.

Allen F. Blocher Planetarium, Observatory, Science Building, UW-Stevens Point. Next public show: “Stellar Extremes,” Feb. 4 to March 11. For more: 715-346-2208, www.uwsp.edu/physastr/plan_obs/

Barlow Planetarium, UW-Fox Valley Center, 1478 Midway Rd., Menasha. Next public show: “The New Solar System,” through Dec. 30. For more: 920-832-2848, www.barlowplanetarium.org.

Hobbs Observatory, Beaver Creek Reserve, Highway K, Fall Creek. Open to public on Saturday nights. For more: 715-877-2212, www.beavercreekreserve.org.

Washburn Observatory, 1401 Observatory Drive, Madison. Open to public on first and third Wednesdays of the month. For more: 608-262-9274, www.astro.wisc.edu.