University of Minnesota Alumni Association


Dancing With the Stars

The Bell Museum’s new planetarium brings the universe home.

Photo by Sara Rubinstein

Stretched out in a tilt-back seat, a space traveler shoots up into the void. In seconds, Earth recedes to a blue dot, the solar system shrinks to a bubble, and a faint blur grows and resolves into a star circled by seven tiny exoplanets. The year: 2018.

Once the realm of science fiction, virtual journeys through the stars—or along any other path traced by science—will become reality in July, when the Whitney and Elizabeth MacMillan Planetarium opens at the University of Minnesota’s new Bell Museum. The unveiling restores and enhances an experience lost to the region when the planetarium at the former Minneapolis Central Library closed in 2002.

Located on the St. Paul campus, the new 120-seat planetarium employs space-age tools for sending visitors anywhere in the universe. Using laser light from two highresolution digital projectors, it casts images onto a screen that mimics the natural dome of the sky. The screen comprises 226 aluminum panels, seamlessly riveted together and attached to a suspended frame. The structure weighs over 12,000 pounds.

“We’re the first in the world to have this kind of screen,” says planetarium manager Sally Brummel. “We can [display] the classic night sky, any time or from any place. We’re not limited to viewing space from Earth. We just enter the coordinates and time, and we get there right away.

“Anything you can show on a computer, you can show in the planetarium,” she adds. “But a computer can’t immerse you in a scene the way the planetarium can.” Utilizing 360-degree views, the planetarium’s first show will be an original production, written by celebrated Minnesota author Shawn Otto, about the state’s place in the cosmos.

Here we see the Bell's new permanent exhibit, "Life in the Universe," while still in progress.
Photo by Kristi Anderson

Visitors eager to see actual stars and planets can do so from the planetarium’s outdoor observation deck, located on the museum’s roof. It will be outfitted with telescope mounts, with observing possible both at night and, thanks to solar filters, during the day. While the planetarium will focus on exotic objects like the Trappist-1 stellar system—the aforementioned star orbited by seven dwarf exoplanets—the telescopes will reveal more accessible jewels like lunar craters, several moons of Jupiter, and the Orion Nebula, a gigantic sweep of bright gas and dust where stars are forming at a breakneck pace.

The planetarium’s programming extends to a new permanent museum exhibit, “Life in the Universe.” It will cover, among other topics, “how Earth formed and what the requirements are for a planet to be able to host life,” says U astrophysics professor Lawrence Rudnick, who helped design the installation.

With input from a cross section of U scientists, the planetarium is poised to help students and the public see Earth in new ways. Brummel is working on stories about Minnesota water, using technology that can project up-to-date images of state and global water patterns on the planetarium screen. “We can see rivers and lakes and overlay data that show, for example, what’s happening in different lakes,” she explains.

Adds Rudnick: “In its new digital form, the planetarium allows us to share U of M research—the discoveries the public is paying for—with the public.” If the planetarium has a main goal, it’s to generate for visitors the sense of adventure and delight scientists feel whenever nature reveals a secret.

“Our mission means meeting audiences where they are and opening their eyes to the world researchers see when they investigate the cosmos, or when they study how a raindrop makes its way from a Minnesota field through the groundwater system into the Mississippi River and, ultimately, the Gulf of Mexico,” says George Weiblen, Bell Museum science director and curator of plants. “We can also flow along with blood through the human circulatory system, or fly with migrating birds and butterflies, all of which can be visualized on a digital dome.”

Bell Executive Director Denise Young says she is excited to be part of returning a public planetarium to Minnesota, especially given its extraordinary versatility. “Together with our audiences in the planetarium, we will be able to explore those ‘big questions’ we all ask from time to time,” she says. “We’ll be able to wonder together.”

U writer and editor Deane Morrison writes the Minnesota Starwatch newsletter for the Minnesota Institute for Astrophysics.

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