New planetarium unveiled at Peoria museum

Jennifer Towery

Astrologers say the future’s in the stars, and Lakeview Museum officials are counting on it.

They hope visitors to the planetarium will get a tantalizing glimpse of the possibilities in the new PowerDome Planetarium System, which opens to the public today.

All told, the planetarium is the proud owner of nearly a million dollars in virtual stargazing and projection equipment, bought with a $500,000 NASA grant and through a deal negotiated from the strength of being the first planetarium in the Western hemisphere to purchase this model.

Though the equipment was intended for the new museum, NASA wanted it bought now, and was happy to let the museum use it in the meantime.

"It’s kind of like the stars aligned," said Lakeview President Jim Richerson. "People ask me, ‘What’s the new museum going to deliver?’ Here’s an early indication, and it’s just the tip of the iceberg.

"I hope it’s just a harbinger of what the new museum can and will be."

The only other full-dome system in the state is at Adler Planetarium in Chicago, which planetarium Director Sheldon Schafer remembers visiting with awe when he was a boy. That’s the kind of awe he predicts the new system will inspire in schoolchildren.

The core of the new system is a Zeiss Skymaster ZKP 4 celestial projector and a Spacegate Quinto full-dome projector. What these two allow for is a better viewing experience.

On Friday, young guests from Eureka Head Start got a sneak peek at one of the new shows, "Zula Patrol: Under the Weather" after seeing one of the older shows.

"The pictures were just really, really bright. The effects were awesome," said Richard Garcia of Eureka, who with wife Jessica tagged along on son David’s field trip.

The Skymaster system is needed in addition to the Quinto projector to fulfill one of the planetarium’s chief functions — reproducing the stars and planets for study. Stars shown on the projector system look 100 times more fuzzy than those created with the precision fiber optics of the Skymaster.

Each of the more than 6,000 stars it projects has its own glass fiber.

Schafer can show a visitor what the nighttime sky looked like the very night they were born, from the city they were born in, and with precision accuracy.

The planetarium was closed for six weeks while the new system was installed. The dome was painted grey to cut down on the "cross bounce," the effect of light reflecting off the round dome, Schafer said. The result is a much crisper picture with more vibrant color than the white background would have produced.

Though the full-dome shows are not three-dimensional, the dome and the new system’s projection quality give it that effect. For some, it might be hard not to duck when celestial debris is flying at you when "Black Holes" fires up.

"We’re going to tell people, ‘If you start to feel dizzy, look away or close your eyes,’" said Kathleen Woith, Lakeview vice president of community relations.

Three technicians from Germany came for the installation, including the software engineer who worked on the system.

"We had a bulge on a wall that bothered them," Schafer said. "We never even knew it was there. So I said it was never a problem on the old system. And they said, ‘Zees is a precision instrument.’"

So far, Lakeview has nine feature shows ready for the full-dome system. Purchasing new ones isn’t cheap or easy. One computer that boasts four gigabytes of memory is devoted to converting each show to the new projection system.

It takes the many frames in the movie — each frame with 4½ million pixels — and divides them among the five projectors that make up the Quinto. The final picture to the audience is seamless.

As the planetarium gets more new material, the old "legacy shows" will be phased out and eventually eliminated. When that happens, the dated projectors that line the back wall of the dome room will be out of a job.

Jennifer Towery can be reached at (309) 686-3119 or