MONTGOMERY — The W.A. Gayle Planetarium will soon be getting a major digital upgrade to its decades-old projection equipment, resulting in a more dynamic, immersive experience for viewers.
The planetarium will be closed for the duration of the upgrade project, from Friday, Jan. 24, through March 1.
Planetarium Director Rick Evans said the current analog projector, a 45-year-old Spitz STP star machine that has been in use since the planetarium first opened in 1969, runs on outdated technology that is difficult to operate and maintain. The star machine mimics the night sky by projecting light through hundreds of tiny holes onto the darkened dome ceiling, and is operated using some 300 knobs and controls.
"It would be an understatement to say it's a bit of a chore to maintain and manage the old analog system, which is wearing out," Evans said. "It has been a great star machine, but quite frankly it has reached the end of its lifetime."
The new system will be controlled by computer, with the digital images of stars and planets emanating from a single digital projector in the center of the dome. Evans said future programs promise to be much more dynamic — giving viewers the visual experience of zooming in and out of galaxies and planets, circling a planet or traveling through the universe.
"Full-dome projection will give viewers the feeling of motion while watching the immersive video on the dome," Evans said. "You will feel like you're in the middle of the action during a show."
The new digital system will also offer a greater variety of programming options beyond astronomy, including the program "Sea Monsters: A Prehistoric Adventure."
The $500,000 upgrade project is being funded by the City of Montgomery and Troy University with support from the Daniel Foundation, Hyundai Motor Manufacturing Alabama and the State of Alabama Education Trust Fund.
"Funding for the upgrade was realized through Mayor Todd Strange and the city's commitment to educating our children, as well as Troy University's ambitious securing of outside funding," Evans said.
The W.A. Gayle Planetarium is located in Oak Park and is operated by Troy University for the City of Montgomery. It is one of the largest planetariums between Atlanta and New Orleans, and more than 100,000 K-12 students have attended educational shows there over the last five years.