Call it one giant leap for the planetarium at the Manitoba Museum.
From the outside, the domed theatre on Main Street looks the way it has always looked since it was constructed 44 years ago.
But on the inside, the theatre has undergone a radical upgrade after closing to the public on Sept. 4.
As every conventional movie theatre in town has converted from film to digital projection, the planetarium has gone digital with a new $381,700 projection system called the Digistar 5.
To outward appearances, that means a couple of small box-like video projectors have been added to the base of the existing old-fashioned projector.
But the upgrade gives planetarium staff the impressive power to whisk audiences all over the solar system and around the universe.
Scott Young, astronomer and manager of science communications at the Manitoba Museum, offered an early demonstration of the new system's capabilities, piloting a high speed trip to Saturn, where the audience can seem to travel through the rings of the sixth planet from the sun for an up-close look at the debris floating in its orbit.
"The Digistar system has three computers in the back that basically process all the star data and the planet's positions," he says.
"It's not just digital projection, it's digital calculation. We're actually calculating the universe in 3-D in real time.
"It's like having the universe in a box that we can fly around in and play around with. So you can literally go anywhere and do anything and update things as they occur."
"Something could be discovered and announced by the astronomical authorities and we can literally cut and paste it into the show right then. Digistar just adds it to the list of the hundreds of thousands of things it's already calculating and just puts it right up there."
The upgrade also allows the planetarium to present special shows that weren't available on the old Zeiss projection system.
"That's a big driver," Young says. "Most of the people who are creating shows now are using the latest technology so they weren't supporting older theatres like we had. We were having a hard time finding good content. But now we can basically choose from the best shows being produced in the world in any format."
But Young is especially excited about the chance to create new shows with Digistar's capability of roaming the universe.
"We've never been able to present shows the way they look in our heads because the technology wasn't there," he says. "Now we don't have that limit. Now, the cool stuff we come up with goes right out to the audience.
"It's the way things should be. We're just thrilled."
Eight new shows will be debuting at the Planetarium in public shows and school-based presentations. The general public has a choice of three shows when the planetarium opens to the public beginning Saturday, including:
- One World, One Sky: Big Bird's Adventure -- an exploration of the night sky with Sesame Street characters Big Bird and Elmo.
- Manitoba Skies -- This live in-house program looks at the current month's night sky as well as other celestial topics.
- Experience the Aurora - A show about the Northern Lights featuring dazzling time-lapse video shot on location in the Arctic.
For more information on the planetarium shows, log onto www.manitobamuseum.ca and go to the planetarium link.