A mechanical device known as an orrery (for Charles Boyle, earl of Orrery) was a forerunner of the planetarium. It is a framework supporting globes that represent the sun, planets, and natural satellites in their approximate sizes and spatial relations and in their revolutions and rotations. Several orreries were built in the 16th and 17th cent. to explain the Copernican (heliocentric) model of the solar system. Today the orrery finds considerable use as an aid in the teaching of celestial mechanics.
A planetarium is a theatre built primarily for presenting educational and entertaining shows about astronomy and the night sky, or for training in celestial navigation. A dominant feature of most planetariums is the large dome-shaped projection screen onto which scenes of stars, planets and other celestial objects can be made to appear and move realistically to simulate the complex 'motions of the heavens'. The celestial scenes can be created using a wide variety of technologies, for example precision-engineered 'star balls' that combine optical and electro-mechanical technology, slide projector, video and fulldome projector systems, and lasers. Whatever technologies are used, the objective is normally to link them together to provide an accurate relative motion of the sky. Typical systems can be set to display the sky at any point in time, past or present, and often to show the night sky as it would appear from any point of latitude on Earth.
Planetariums have become well-nigh ubiquitous, with some privately owned. A rough estimate is that in the United States there is one planetarium per 100,000 population, ranging in size from the Hayden Planetarium's 20-meter dome seating 430 people, to three-meter inflatable portable domes where children sit on the floor. Such portable planetariums serve education programs outside of the permanent installations of museums and science centers.
The small size of typical 18th century orreries limited their impact, and towards the end of that century a number of educators attempted some larger scale simulations of the heavens. The efforts of Adam Walker (1730-1821) and his sons are noteworthy in their attempts to fuse theatrical illusions with educational aspirations. Walker's Eidouranion was the heart of his public lectures or theatrical presentations. Walker's son describes this "Elaborate Machine" as "twenty feet high, and twenty-seven in diameter: it stands vertically before the spectators, and its globes are so large, that they are distinctly seen in the most distant parts of the Theatre. Every Planet and Satellite seems suspended in space, without any support; performing their annual and diurnal revolutions without any apparent cause". Other lecturers promoted their own devices: R E Lloyd advertised his Dioastrodoxon, or Grand Transparent Orrery, and by 1825 William Kitchener was offering his Ouranologia, which was in diameter. These devices most probably sacrificed astronomical accuracy for crowd-pleasing spectacle and sensational and awe-provoking imagery.
The oldest, still working planetarium can be found in the Dutch town Franeker. It was built by Eise Eisinga (1744-1828) in the livingroom of his house. It took Eisinga seven years to build his planetarium, which was completed in 1781.
In 1905 Oskar von Miller (1855-1934) of the Deutsches Museum in Munich commissioned updated versions of a geared orrery and planetarium from M Sendtner, and later worked with Franz Meyer, chief engineer at the Carl Zeiss optical works in Jena, on the largest mechanical planetarium ever constructed, capable of displaying both heliocentric and geocentric motion. This was displayed at the Deutsches Museum in 1924, construction work having been interrupted by the war. The planets travelled along overhead rails, powered by electric motors: the orbit of Saturn was 11.25 m in diameter. 180 stars were projected onto the wall by electric bulbs.
While this was being constructed, von Miller was also working at the Zeiss factory with German astronomer Max Wolf, former director of the Baden Observatory in Heidelberg, on a new and novel design, inspired by Wallace W Atwood's work at the Chicago Academy of Sciences and by the ideas of Walther Bauersfeld at Zeiss. The result was a planetarium design which would generate all the necessary movements of the stars and planets inside the optical projector, and would be mounted centrally in a room, projecting images onto the white surface of a hemisphere. In August 1923, the first (Model I) Zeiss planetarium projected images of the night sky onto the white plaster lining of a 16 m hemispherical concrete dome, erected on the roof of the Zeiss works. The first official public showing was at the Deutsches Museum in Munich on October 21, 1923.
Before World War II nearly all planetariums were built by Zeiss, the only notable exceptions being one built by two brothers named Korkosz in Springfield, Massachusetts, and another for the Rosicrucian AMORC order in San Jose, California.
The West German firm resumed making large planetariums in 1954, and the East German firm started making small planetariums a few years later. Meanwhile, the lack of planetarium manufacturers had led to several attempts at construction of unique models, such as one built by the California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, which operated 1952-2003. The Korkosz brothers built a large projector for the Boston Museum of Science, which was unique in being the first (and for a very long time only) planetarium to project the planet Uranus. Most planetariums ignore Uranus as being at best marginally visible to the naked eye.
A great boost to the popularity of the planetarium worldwide was provided by the Space Race of the 1950s and 60s when fears that the United States might miss out on the opportunities of the new frontier in space stimulated a massive program to install over 1,200 planetariums in U.S. high schools.
Armand Spitz recognized that there was a viable market for small inexpensive planetariums. His first model, the Spitz A, was designed to project stars from a dodecahedron, thus reducing machining expenses in creating a globe. Planets were not mechanized, but could be shifted by hand. Several models followed with various upgraded capabilities, until the A3P, which projected well over a thousand stars, had motorized motions for latitude change, daily motion, and annual motion for Sun, Moon (including phases), and planets. This model was installed in hundreds of high schools, colleges, and even small museums from 1964 to the 1980s.
Japan entered the planetarium manufacturing business in the 1960s, with Goto and Minolta both successfully marketing a number of different models. Goto was particularly successful when the Japanese Ministry of Education put one of their smallest models, the E-3 or E-5 (the numbers refer to the metric diameter of the dome) in every elementary school in Japan.
Phillip Stern, as former lecturer at New York City's Hayden Planetarium, had the idea of creating a small planetarium which could be programmed. His Apollo model was introduced in 1967 with a plastic program board, recorded lecture, and film strip. Unable to pay for this himself, Stern became the head of the planetarium division of Viewlex, a mid-size audio-visual firm on Long Island. About thirty canned programs were created for various grade levels and the public, while operators could create their own or run the planetarium live. Purchasers of the Apollo were given their choice of two canned shows, and could purchase more. A few hundred were sold, but in the late 1970s Viewlex went bankrupt for reasons unrelated to the planetarium business.
During the 1970s, the OmniMax movie system (now known as IMAX Dome) was conceived to operate on planetarium screens. More recently, some planetariums have re-branded themselves as dome theaters, with broader offerings including wide-screen or "wraparound" films, fulldome video, and laser shows that combine music with laser-drawn patterns.
StarLab in Massachusetts offered the first easily portable planetarium in 1977 which projected stars, constellation figures from many mythologies, celestial coordinate systems, and much else, from removable cylinders (Viewlex and others followed with their own portable versions).
When Germany reunified in 1989, the two Zeiss firms did likewise, and expanded their offerings to cover many different size domes.
The newest generation of planetariums offer a fully digital projection system, using fulldome video technology. This gives the operator great flexibility in showing not only the modern night sky as visible from Earth, but any other image they wish (including the night sky as visible from points far distant in space and time).
A new generation of home planetariums was released in Japan by Takayuki Ohira in cooperation with Sega. Ohira is worldwide known as a mastermind for building portable planetariums used at exhibitions and events such as the Aichi World Expo in 2005. The Homestar Planetarium can be carried in a bag and is intended for home use, however by projecting 10,000 stars on the ceiling makes it semi-professional.
The realism of the viewing experience in a planetarium depends significantly on the dynamic range of the image, i.e., the contrast between dark and light. This can be a challenge in any domed projection environment, because a bright image projected on one side of the dome will tend to reflect light across to the opposite side, "lifting" the black level there and so making the whole image look less realistic. Since traditional planetarium shows consisted mainly of small points of light (i.e., stars) on a black background, this was not a significant issue, but it became an issue as digital projection systems started to fill large portions of the dome with bright objects (e.g., large images of the sun in context). For this reason, modern planetarium domes are often not painted white but rather a mid grey colour, reducing reflection to perhaps 35-50%. This increases the perceived level of contrast.
A major challenge in dome construction is to make seams as invisible as possible. Painting a dome after installation is a major task and, if done properly, the seams can be made almost to disappear.
Traditionally, planetarium domes were mounted horizontally, matching the natural horizon of the real night sky. However, because that configuration requires highly inclined chairs for comfortable viewing "straight up", increasingly domes are being built tilted from the horizontal by between 5 and 30 degrees to provide greater comfort. Tilted domes tend to create a favoured 'sweet spot' for optimum viewing, centrally about a third of the way up the dome from the lowest point. Tilted domes generally have seating arranged 'stadium-style' in straight, tiered rows; horizontal domes usually have seats in circular rows, arranged in concentric (facing center) or epicentric (facing front) arrays.
Often around the edge of the dome (the 'cove') are:-
Traditionally, planetariums needed many incandescent lamps around the cove of the dome to help audience entry and exit, to simulate sunrise and sunset, and to provide working light for dome cleaning. More recently, solid-state LED lighting has become available that significantly decreases power consumption and reduces the maintenance requirement as lamps no longer have to be changed on a regular basis.
Traditional planetarium projection apparatus uses a hollow ball with a light inside, and a pinhole for each star, hence the name "star ball". With some of the brightest stars (e.g. Sirius, Canopus, Vega), the hole must be so big to let enough light through that there must be a small lens in the hole to focus the light to a sharp point on the dome. In later and modern planetarium star balls, the individual bright stars often have individual projectors, shaped like small hand-held torches, with focusing lenses for individual bright stars. Contact breakers prevent the projectors from projecting below the 'horizon'.
The star ball is usually mounted so it can rotate as a whole to simulate the Earth's daily rotation, and to change the simulated latitude on Earth. There is also usually a means of rotating to produce the effect of precession of the equinoxes. Often, one such ball is attached at its south ecliptic pole. In that case, the view cannot go so far south that any of the resulting blank area at the south is projected on the dome. Some star projectors have two balls at opposite ends of the projector like a dumbbell. In that case all stars can be shown and the view can go to either pole or anywhere between. But care must be taken that the projection fields of the two balls match where they meet or overlap.
Smaller planetarium projectors include a set of fixed stars, Sun, Moon, and planets, and various nebulae. Larger projectors also include comets and a far greater selection of stars. Additional projectors can be added to show twilight around the outside of the screen (complete with city or country scenes) as well as the Milky Way. Others add coordinate lines and constellations, photographic slides, laser displays, and other images.
Each planet is projected by a sharply focused spotlight that makes a spot of light on the dome. Planet projectors must have gearing to move their positioning and thereby simulate the planets' movements. These can be of these types:-
Despite offering a good viewer experience, traditional star ball projectors suffer several inherent limitations. From a practical point of view, the low light levels require several minutes for the audience to "dark adapt" its eyesight. "Star ball" projection is limited in education terms by its inability to move beyond an earth-bound view of the night sky. Finally, a challenge for most traditional projectors is that the various overlaid projection systems are incapable of proper occultation. This means that a planet image projected on top of a star field (for example) will still show the stars shining through the planet image, degrading the quality of the viewing experience. For related reasons, some planetariums show stars below the horizon projecting on the walls below the dome or on the floor, or (with a bright star or a planet) shining in the eyes of someone in the audience.
However, the new breed of Optical-Mechanical projectors using fiber-optic technology to display the stars, show a much more realistic view of the sky, and are far superior to any digital star projector.
In a fully digital planetarium, the dome image is generated by a computer and then projected onto the dome using a variety of technologies including cathode ray tube, LCD, DLP or laser projectors. Sometimes a single projector mounted near the centre of the dome is employed with a "fish eye lens" to spread the light over the whole dome surface, while in other configurations several projectors around the horizon of the dome are arranged to blend together seamlessly.
Digital projection systems all work by creating the image of the night sky as a large array of pixels. Generally speaking, the more pixels a system can display, the better the viewing experience. While the first generation of digital projectors were unable to generate enough pixels to match the image quality of the best traditional "star ball" projectors, high-end systems now offer a resolution that approaches the limit of human visual acuity, making their images subjectively indistinguishable from the very best "star balls" to most eyes.
However, these digital star projectors do not show "pin-point" stars like one would actually see in the real sky. The colors of the stars are also not correct. Although the digital projectors are good for "travelling" through space, their ability to show a realistic star field is decades away. And although the digital manufacturers may say that the costs of maintenance are reduced, in reality, the maintenance costs of the digital and video units are significantly more than those of their optical-mechanical counterparts.
LCD projectors have fundamental limits on their ability to project true black as well as light, which has tended to limit their use in planetariums. LCOS and modified LCOS projectors have improved on LCD contrast ratios while also eliminating the “screen door” effect of small gaps between LCD pixels. “Dark chip” DLP projectors improve on the standard DLP design and can offer relatively inexpensive solution with bright images, but the black level requires physical baffling of the projectors. As the technology matures and reduces in price, laser projection looks promising for dome projection as it offers bright images, large dynamic range and a very wide color space.
Since the early 1990s, fully featured 3-D digital planetariums have added an extra degree of freedom to a presenter giving a show because they allow simulation of the view from any point in space, not only the earth-bound view which we are most familiar with. This new virtual reality capability to travel through the universe provides important educational benefits because it vividly conveys that space has depth, helping audiences to leave behind the ancient misconception that the stars are stuck on the inside of a giant celestial sphere and instead to understand the true layout of the solar system and beyond. For example, a planetarium can now 'fly' the audience towards one of the familiar constellations such as Orion, revealing that the stars which appear to make up a co-ordinated shape from our earth-bound viewpoint are at vastly different distances from Earth and so not connected, except in human imagination and mythology. For especially visual or spatially-aware people, this experience can be more educationally beneficial than other demonstrations.
Music is an important element to fill out the experience of a good planetarium show, often featuring forms of space-themed music, or music from the genres of space music, space rock, or classical music.