Planetariums are wonderful tools for getting to know the night sky. A planetarium can simulate a true dark-sky environment that few citizens ever really see, and many now run modern, high-production programs with state-of-the-art exhibits. In short, these are not your grandfather’s planetariums. While hundreds of planetariums exist across the United States, the following list represents some of the premier facilities, recognized for their top-notch programs, historical significance and/or cutting-edge public outreach.
10. Fujitsu Planetarium
Located in Cupertino, California, the Fujitsu Planetarium at De Anza College features the largest school facility of its kind west of the Rockies. That’s enough to earn it a spot on this list over other perhaps better-known planetariums. With its ultra-modern facilities, the planetarium is a primary reason De Anza hosts the largest astronomy program in the California Stare Community College System. Fujitsu offers private rentals for weddings, corporate meetings, birthdays and other special events, in addition to laser light shows set to the music of Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, the Beatles and other classic rock bands.
9. Clark Planetarium in Salt Lake City
The Clark Planetarium in downtown Salt Lake City boasts an ATK IMAX theatre, the Hansen Dome Theatre and also runs a series of Cosmic Light shows. In addition to field trips and astronomical sky shows, the Clark Planetarium also shows first-run movies in its IMAX theatre, an increasingly popular trend among planetariums nationwide. One must-see attraction is the Science on a Sphere exhibit, which uses computer projections to display weather systems, the nighttime sky and other scientific data on a 6-foot computer image of the Earth. As with almost every facility on this list, Clark Planetarium is available for rent for private groups and special events. It’s worth noting that there is also another Clark Planetarium, a highly rated facility, in Portsmouth, Ohio, at Shawnee State University.
8. Morehead Planetarium
Founded in 1949, the Morehead Planetarium at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill was the first planetarium in the South, and one of the first in the United States. There’s no shortage of history at the facility; most notably, beginning with the advent of the U.S. space program in the late 1950s, dozens of astronauts studied celestial navigation at Morehead. The facility today hosts numerous programs, including summer science camps, and science clubs or workshops for elementary and middle school students. The planetarium’s legendary Carl Zeiss VI star projector, which served more than 40 years, has been retired, but the planetarium remains on the cutting edge in the industry with a fully digital theater, science center and other state-of-the-art features.
7. Strasenburgh Planetarium
The Strasenburgh Planetarium was founded in 1912 as part of the Rochester (N.Y.) Museum & Science Center. Its 65-foot in diameter Star Theater Dome can seat up to 225 people and utilizes a state-of-the art Zeiss Mark VI projector for daily shows. In addition to space and music laser light shows, the museum features hands-on science exhibits as well as world heritage and cultural exhibits. The Rochester Museum and Science Center also maintains a 900-acre Nature Center just south of the main facility near Naples, New York.
6. Flandrau Observatory and Science Center
This observatory in the heart of Tucson on the University of Arizona campus reopened in 2012 after renovations and boasts a modern planetarium with weekly shows. In addition, the museum contains several science exhibits as well as an outstanding gem and mineral collection in the geology section. Don’t miss the unusual “Moon-dial” sidewalk clock at the entrance. The Flandrau also boasts a special treat; free sky viewing on Wednesday through Saturday nights with a knowledgeable astronomer via its adjoining observatory. The Flandrau observatory has a 16-inch reflecting telescope, and its trained operators can locate many deep-sky objects even under downtown skies.
5. Albert Einstein Planetarium
Part of the sprawling Smithsonian Air & Space Museum in Washington D.C., the Albert Einstein Planetarium is not to be missed. The museum utilizes a unique Sky Vision Dual projection system that gives the viewer a stereo perspective, as if they are flying through the cosmos. Shows are daily, and the planetarium runs in concert with several nearby IMAX theaters. In addition to the main shows, a free “The Stars Tonight” program is run daily as well as solar viewing (weather permitting) on the plaza. And don’t miss the recently installed Space Shuttle Discovery, which arrived in early 2012, at the nearby Udvar-Hazy Center.
Located in Minneapolis Minnesota, the ExploraDome offers a unique learning environment for all ages. Part of the University of Minnesota’s Bell Museum, the ExploraDome is a unique portable facility that offers an immersive experience as viewers lay back for a thrilling trip through the cosmos, from the realm of the subatomic to the expanse of the galaxies. Using a high-tech projector under a 25-foot dome, the ExploraDome accomplishes this feat via its Uniview active software. And unlike other traditional planetariums, the ExploraDome can travel to schools, offering its unique interactive exhibit right in local community gymnasiums and cafeterias.
3. Griffith Observatory and Planetarium
The Griffith Observatory may be the best known on this list, thanks to its appearance in many films and TV shows, including Rebel without a Cause, Transformers, and Star Trek: Voyager. Located on the slopes of Mount Hollywood in Los Angeles’ Griffith Park, the Griffith Observatory boasts a commanding view of the entire Los Angeles basin, and is included on many Hollywood tours. The 285-seat Samuel Oschin Planetarium presents four unique shows daily. The Griffith Observatory also contains a fascinating museum and has hosted star parties and live viewing for eclipses and other rare celestial events.
2. Adler Planetarium
The Adler Planetarium in Chicago sports a new projector and sound system, delivering stunning views and top-notch shows. Curiously, this same projector was the center of an election-year controversy in 2008, when Sen. John McCain cited it during the presidential debates as an example of frivolous spending. This ignited a subsequent backlash on the Internet. Today, viewers can enjoy shows daily in three theaters and a number of exhibitions.
1. Hayden Planetarium
If you only visit one planetarium in your lifetime, make it the Hayden Planetarium in New York City. Part of the American Museum of Natural History & the Department of Astrophysics, the Hayden Planetarium offers daily shows on the birth of the universe and tours of the solar system utilizing an amazing full-dome, high-resolution video system in its Hayden Sphere Star Theatre. The Hayden Planetarium is currently directed by astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson, who was originally inspired in his career by a visit to the same planetarium as a kid. The Hayden also inadvertently became ground zero for the center of the Pluto-planet-demotion controversy when the planetarium removed the planet from a solar system model after a renovation in 2000. While looking for Pluto, don’t miss the first-rate shows offered by the Hayden Planetarium … they are unparalleled in the cosmos.