Thursday, June 21, 2007

IEEE Spectrum: Mobile Domes: Coming to a Parking Lot near You

IEEE Spectrum: Mobile Domes: Coming to a Parking Lot near You

Click here for a slide show of the mobile planetariums

The room is suffused in shades of gray, except for a bluish computer monitor to one side. From its glow, I can make out a circle of smooth curved walls arching upward almost 3 meters and meeting in the center overhead. A fan whirrs in the otherwise quiet interior: a blower is inflating this perfect nylon dome. In the darkness, I get the illusory sense of a vacuous sanctuary.

Sanctuary until a flap opens and a man ducks in on a shaft of light, followed a gaggle of chattering sixth-graders. He invites them to find a comfortable spot, and they happily flop to their backs, sending up a mix of bubblegum perfumes and sweaty sneakers. One boy whispers, “This is cool.”

“Hi,” says Joel Halvorson, program director for the Minnesota Planetarium Society. “What we’re inside is an inflatable dome, what we like to think of as a mobile planetarium.”

Moments later, his assistant, Sally Goff, works the laptop. She douses the lights, and giggles percolate instantly. She clicks a few more keys, lighting up a small, fish-eye-lens projector in the middle of the room, and suddenly the Earth appears directly overhead, three meters wide in all its luminous glory. A chorus of “oohs,” and a girl spontaneously reaches her hand skyward. Another click and we’re coursing to the edges of the galaxy. More “oohs.” The kids are hooked....