About 200 people from the Bradenton area took a guided tour to the edge of the universe Tuesday night. A lot more are expected to do so this evening.
In mid-October, the Bishop Planetarium at the South Florida Museum unveiled its new projection and computer system. With the new systems in place, museum officials said, Bradenton's planetarium rivals any in the world.
The museum will show off its new planetarium capabilities an open house from 5 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. Thursday. The museum will be open, but the centerpiece of the evening will be demonstrations of the new planetarium system under the guidance of Jeff Rodgers, director of the Bishop Planetarium. Space-related activities are also on tap.
About 200 invited guests visited the planetarium Tuesday to see what the new system could do. Rodgers said they all seemed impressed.
"All I saw was smiles as people were coming out," he said. "And all I heard was 'wow.' It left people slightly awestruck, I think."
The $500,000 system is noticeably brighter and has much more contrast than the retired 7-year-old system, Rodgers said, but that's only the tiniest part of what makes it special.
It's loaded with a detailed three-dimensional map of the observable universe. Rodgers can take visitors on a virtual trip to anywhere, and then turn around an look at the Milky Way, the planet Earth, and even zoom in on a close-up view of downtown Braden
ton. The planetarium can show real-time weather systems and other natural phenomena on Earth.
But it's not all about the cosmos.
A 3D scanner allows Rodgers to display any item from the museum on the planetarium dome and maneuver it so the audience can see it from any angle.
"The museum is filled with fantastic objects," Rodgers said. "But much of it is priceless and sealed behind glass. This brings the museum to the community."
The new system has been in use for about three weeks. The presentations at the open house are designed to offer a sampler of the range of its capabilities.
The new system replaces one installed in 2005, when the planetarium reopened after a fire had destroyed all of the previous equipment.
Museum officials knew the 2005 system was becoming technologically obsolete, so money for the new system was in the budget.
Rodgers said he went to a lot of trouble to make sure the museum bought the best equipment available at a time when nothing new was going to become available soon.
"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. One, narrated by Tom Hanks, is called "Passport to the Universe." The other, aimed at younger audiences is an animated shows called "Perfect Little Planet" that has aliens touring the solar system looking for a perfect vacation spot.
The planetarium also hosts movies on Friday nights with adapters that can make the image appear flat even on the domed screen. A new high-resolution projector will be added to the system in the next couple of months.
"The movies already look great," Rodgers said. "But they'll look a whole lot better in high-res."
The South Florida Museum is at 201 10th St. W., Bradenton. The open house is free. Call 941-746-4131 or visit southfloridamuseum.org.
Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-708-7919. Follow twitter.com/martinclear.