What's Happening at Strasenburgh Planetarium?

Curious about the Strasenburgh Planetarium renovations? Director Steve Fentress answers some of the most frequently asked questions.

(Pictured right: Strasenburgh Planetarium Director Steve Fentress works at new screens that control the Digistar 6 full-dome visualization system and Bowen Technovation lighting and special effects sofware. The older knobs and buttons to his left still control the 1968 Zeiss star projector.)

Q: What’s happening?

A: The Planetarium closed for three months for the biggest renovation in its 50-year history, including a new projection system and lighting in the Star Theater and improvements to the lobby and restrooms. The Planetarium is now open! We're excited to feature a brand new Presentation—Outer Space to Inner Space—and the return of a perennial favorite Star Show—The Sky Tonight. Reopening celebrations continue this weekend, January 19 & 20th, with Planetarium shows, make-and-take activities and space-themed all-ages experiences in the Science Museum and a space-themed display in the Science Museum lobby, and more!


Q: Is “Carl,” the Zeiss star projector, going away?

A: No. The 1968 star projector is staying, and we are working on ways to incorporate “Carl” into our new shows.


Q: What is happening in the Star Theater?

A: We are installing a new fulldome visualization system, Digistar 6, from the Evans & Sutherland Corporation, a Salt Lake City computer graphics company whose equipment is installed in hundreds of other planetariums worldwide. In our Star Theater, two large digital cinema projectors hidden at opposite sides of the Star Theater will fill the dome with a seamless, bright, colorful video image. With this system we will be able to fly virtually around Earth, far into outer space, and down into the micro world, using accurate scientific data.

While we’re at it, we will remove more than 200 red, blue, and white incandescent light bulbs and replace them with programmable red, green, and blue LEDs that will light the dome with more intense colors than we’ve ever had.

The old seats and carpet will be replaced, and we will experiment with a smaller seating capacity and a flexible seating plan to make a more pleasant and less crowded experience for visitors.


Q: How is this being paid for?

A: RMSC is funding the renovation primarily through private donations, including a major gift from John and Barbara Bruning and two HemiStar HM4K-178 HL 4K fisheye projection lenses for the Digistar 6 projection system donated by Rochester-based optics manufacturer, Navitar, Inc.

New York State Assembly Majority Leader Joseph D. Morelle also announced $500,000 in assistance, provided through the New York State Economic Development Program (NYSEDP).

If you would care to contribute to the renovation, there are still many additional improvements that would be possible in a range of dollar amounts. Click here to make a donation!


Q: What will happen to old equipment such as slide projectors from the Star Theater?

A: We had a garage sale of retiring Planetarium items in October. Thank you to everyone who came out and purchased 35mm slides, Kodak projectors, carousel trays, light tables, and other vintage items from 50 years of Strasenburgh Planetarium history to support its renovation. 

(Pictured below: Kodak 35 mm slide projectors)

Kodak slide projectors in Planetarium


Q: When you re-open, will you still have laser shows?

A: Yes, and they’ll be better than ever, with new visual elements and programmable dome lighting. We'll relaunch with The Beatles Laser Light, opening Saturday, Feb. 2, 2019, and continue weekly after that, with titles changing monthly.


Q: Will there be shows for school classes coming on field trips?

A: Yes, shows for school classes will resume in March, 2019. The new technology is so radically advanced compared to what we have now that we are creating completely new shows.


Q: I know of something that you should try projecting on your new digital dome.

A: Watch for news about Dome Lab events, which we plan to introduce in spring 2019. Patterned after similar events at other digital planetariums such as the one at COSI in Columbus, Ohio, Dome Lab meetups allow content creators to bring their content on a laptop or portable drive and try it out on the Star Theater dome.


Q: Will the renovated Planetarium be available for weddings and other events?

A: Absolutely. A major part of the renovation will be a new food and beverage service bar in the lobby, available for rental events. This renovation greatly expands the Planetarium’s capabilities for unique events that combine lobby refreshments with special presentations in the Star Theater. We will set aside dates and times for events once we’ve had the chance to get our new equipment installed and running!


Q: What’s the long term future for “Carl” the star projector?

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(Pictured right: "Carl" in 1973)

A: The 1968 Carl Zeiss Mark VI instrument, a masterpiece of optical mechanical, and electrical engineering, is showing its age in several ways. Small light leaks are developing, making strange shapes among the stars that many audience members have already noticed. The mechanism that makes phases of the moon is worn and thus not accurate in some parts of the phase cycle. The brightest stars are projected with special incandescent light bulbs that are no longer manufactured. (We have a hoard of these lamps that might last a few more years.) The Zeiss meteor shower projector is permanently out of commission after several repair attempts. The mythological constellation figures and coordinate lines are limited by today’s standards, look dim, and cannot be updated or expanded. The northern Milky Way projector has an unrepairable light leak that happens to send annoying light into the center of the audience during our popular winter constellation tours. The instrument’s large size blocks the view for large segments of the audience when we are showing planets low in the south or near the rising or setting sun. Cooling fans of the size, shape, and voltage required for the main star balls are becoming almost impossible to find. Electronic components in the dimmer circuits (out of sight in the basement under the theater) are aging. The knobs and buttons on the control panel are hard to repair and use rare parts.

Newer star projectors make more, sharper, brighter and more realistic stars, have more accurate contrasts in color and brightness between stars, can smoothly and quickly transition between dates without having to crank through the intervening time, thus making instructional programs more engaging, use LEDs rather than incandescent or fluorescent lamps, are smaller so they block less of the audience’s view, and can be synchronized automatically with the data projected from Digistar. They are also expensive, so a new wave of fundraising will be needed to obtain one for Rochester. A part of the cost not to be underestimated is that of removing the one-ton Zeiss instrument and associated equipment from the theater and basement.

When the time comes, “Carl” will retire to a place of honor as an exhibit, where you will be able to see this magnificent 20th-century machine even better than you can now.

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