For 80 years, The Adler Planetarium has been encouraging visitors to look up at the stars. Now it's giving them a way to feel like they're traveling through them.
The Adler dedicated $14 million to creating Deep Space Adventure, installing all new computers to power the planetarium's theaters and moving the gift shop to make room for the Welcome Gallery to the Grainger Sky Theater. Costing $8 million, the theater is the most technologically advanced in the world.
Deep Space AdventureLocation: The Adler Planetarium, 1300 S. Lake Shore Drive, Chicago, (312) 922-7827, adlerplanetarium.org
Admission: $28; $22 for kids ages 3-11
Hours: 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily
The Grainger Sky Theater originally gave audiences overhead views, providing an experience similar to stargazing. But the newly updated theater projects images from floor to ceiling. It works incredibly well in the theater's first show, "The Searcher," where the story features an alien explorer bringing his human guests along on a tour of the Milky Way and his own galaxy as he looks for his missing race.
"The experience you get now is as if you're sitting on a spaceship going through space," said Adler Planetarium President Paul H. Knappenberger Jr. "We wanted every visitor to become a space explorer."
Deep Space Adventure ticket holders wait for their show time in the Welcome Gallery. The room features oddly curving, color-changing walls reminiscent of something out of science fiction. The walls are equipped with infrared sensors that detect visitors' body heat, letting guests learn about space exploration by assembling a model of a space rover and magnifying images of the stars with just a wave of their hands.
The show itself is incredibly immersive, featuring scenes of imagined alien worlds developed by the Adler and footage of stellar phenomena from NASA and the University of Illinois. The theater uses 20 state-of-the-art projectors, each linked to two computers with the images blended to be seamless. The ultra high-definition screens use more pixels than the human eye can process.
"That's what gives you that incredible feeling of being in space," Knappenberger said.
The images used in the show -- colliding galaxies, the creation of supernovas, the black hole at the center of the galaxy and the interactions at work in a binary star system -- can also be seen in the Adler's new Gravity Gallery, which replaces the Pritzker Gallery of Cosmology.
"In a show like this, a beautiful scene that takes hundreds of hours to render is only on the dome for a few seconds," Knappenberger said. "We want visitors to be able to learn more. Maybe the show whets your appetite to learn more about black holes and you can go to the exhibit and do that."
The gallery is filled with interactive elements that can teach visitors of all ages a bit about the force that keeps everything in the universe together. Kids can try lifting a set of three Pepsi cans, one with the familiar weight the item has on earth, one lighter to show the small force of gravity on the moon, and a much heavier one weighted for Jupiter's gravity. Visitors can add dots to a screen, creating their own galaxies and stars, and then watch a gravity simulation pull the heavenly bodies together. An area devoted to black holes includes a series of trick mirrors that show how your body would be stretched should you ever approach one.
"The Searcher" is expected to run in the Grainger Sky Theater for the next year, but when the next show debuts the Adler will offer updated exhibits corresponding with its themes, using the archive of images the Adler is building. They can be used not only for shows, but also anywhere in the museum.
"It really gives us a lot of flexibility that we've never had before," Knappenberger said. "We just have to figure out the best way to use it."