BRADENTON -- Jeff Rodgers is offering guided tours of the entire universe, starting right here in Bradenton.
Rodgers is director of the Bishop Planetarium at the South Florida Museum. He unveiled the planetarium's new computer and projection system Tuesday that's light years beyond the one he had been using.
"We have a new projection system that replaced our 7-year-old system that was on its last legs," Rodgers said. "Seven years ago, when we got that system, I said the old one was an Atari and the new one was an X-Box. I have no idea what to compare this one to."
The most basic improvement is that the new system uses two projectors instead of seven.
"You'll get a seamless view of the universe in front of you and, if you turn around, you'll see a seamless view of the universe behind you," he said. "And there's a lot of cool stuff behind you."
The new system is three times brighter and has 10 times more contrast than the old one, Rodgers said. People who saw the planetarium a few weeks ago and visit again now will notice the difference the moment they walk in, he said.
That's just the beginning.
The planetarium computers can take visitors on a virtual voyage literally to the edge of the observable universe. You can go out past the solar system and through the Oort cloud. You can look at recently discovered planets orbiting other stars, travel beyond the Milky Way and turn back and watch as our galaxy becomes a distant dot, then turn around and watch it grow nearer again.
Or you can hover over any of the planets in our solar system, or any of the moons. You can look down on Earth and see actual volcanoes, earthquakes and storms as they're occurring.
The new system cost about $500,000 and it's as good as any computer and projection system in any planetarium in the world, Rodgers said.
"We look at it as investment in the community," he said.
About 75,000 people a year visit the Bishop Planetarium.
Rodgers said he and museum staff kept a close eye on developments in planetarium technology before committing to the new system, to make sure something new on the horizon would not surpass this system.
"We made sure we weren't going to be burned by technology." He said.
The new system allows the planetarium to offer a couple of new shows in addition to its usual interactive presentations.
One, narrated by Tom Hanks, is called "Passport to the Universe." The other, aimed mostly at younger audiences, is an animated show called "Perfect Little Planet" with aliens touring the solar system looking for a perfect vacation spot.
Planetarium presentations are included with admission to the South Florida Museum, 201 10th St. W., in downtown Bradenton.
The Museum will offer a free open house from 5 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 7, to give the public the opportunity to see this new system in person.
Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-708-7919. Follow twitter.com/martinclear.