Are the stars aligned for the Planetarium?

Share this:
February 5, 2007 // UPDATED 10:58 am - April 26, 2007
By: Michelle Bruch
Michelle Bruch

Minnesota Planetarium Society launches ‘quiet phase’ of $16.5 million fundraising campaign for Downtown Planetarium

Planetarium designs are four years old and state funding arrived nearly two years ago, but the Minnesota Planetarium Society is working to make up for lost time. The nonprofit organization has launched a yearlong “quiet phase” of a campaign to raise funds to construct theplanetarium.

During this phase, planetarium society members are asking corporations and foundations to put a dent in the project’s $16.5 million fundraising campaign through avenues such as corporate naming rights. Frank Parisi, interim executive director of MNPS, said it is difficult to approach donors in the midst of so many recent capital campaigns, but the planetarium is a unique attraction that will appeal to corporations who want to inspire youth interest in math and science-related careers.

“Those are the doors we’ll knock on first,” Parisi said. “It’s a tough task but we think it’s certainly doable.”

The $42.5 million project has so far secured $22 million in authorized bonding from the state Legislature. An anticipated late 2009 opening would require construction to begin as soon as mid-2008, provided that funding is available. The MNPS is preparing a business plan for city approval that details revenue and expense projections.

The planetarium’s total cost has risen above the $30 million proposed in 2002, which is attributed to rising construction costs and the need to hire staff before the planetarium is built.

Despite millions in fundraising ahead, Library Board member and MNPS Board Member Laura Waterman Wittstock said she has seen no reason to worry the campaign will slide off its current schedule.

“We’ve heard nothing that makes us pessimistic,” she said. “I think there is a lot of excitement about the plan, and we’re looking forward to a new, improved facility.”

Bells and whistles

The 60-foot sky dome would hold about 200 people, a little larger than the city’s prior planetarium. The planetarium closed at the old Central Library in September 2002 to make way for construction of the new Downtown library. The 1960s-era technology would be replaced with capablities that could include satellite links to other planetariums, the broadcast of lectures by scientists from around the world and interactive shows.

“If one of the students says they want to see Mercury, we’ll take viewers right to Mercury based on photographs and images from space,” Parisi said. “In the new planetarium, students and visitors here at lunchtime can take a look at the night sky in Australia in real time.”

When the planetarium is not used for shows, private parties could listen to jazz under the stars, Parisi said.

Larry Rudnick, a University of Minnesota astronomy professor and an advisor to the planetarium project, said it might take additional time for the world to coordinate its telescopes for use by planetariums.

On opening day, he said, patrons should have the opportunity to look at the sun, moon and planets from the roof of the library; browse a worldwide data bank of space images; and watch a “knock-yoursocks-off” show in the sky theater, featuring interactive controls from the seats. Traveling exhibitions from NASA and other agencies would come shortly after opening.

At the Central Library, two hidden elevator shafts and sturdier support structures are already in place to host the two-story, 37,000-square-foot planetarium on the north tower. Patrons would access the planetarium using elevators near the access to the underground parking ramp, located to the right of the Nicollet Mall entrance.

The exterior design would extend the library’s glasswork system up to a planetarium dome that features an unfolding petal design, said Tom Hysell, principal of Architectural Alliance, a local architecture firm that has worked on the library. The dome would stand at the corner of Hennepin Avenue and 3rd Street. Detailed designs of an observation deck and additional green roof have yet to be determined.

“The dome will have a sparkle to it,” Hysell said. “The planetarium is designed to complement the whole building. The building is complete without it, but it will be more complete with it.”

Planetarium Society members recently met with HGA, a Warehouse District-based design firm, to rethink the flow of visitors through the building and consider additional event space with skyline views. HGA is waiting for word from the Planetarium Society to move forward with detailed interior design plans.

In the meantime, Minnesota school kids still have a method of navigating the stars. The Minnesota Planetarium Society commissioned Elumenati, a Minneapolis firm, to construct a portable planetarium called the ExporaDome. With a sponsor paying $1,000 per day, a classroom of a kids can enter the inflatable star dome to experience planetarium shows inside their school.

D’nardo Colucci, a principal of Elumenati, said they replaced the traditional “Zeiss” or central star ball projector with a digital projector. The screen and the inflatable dome work under a dual pressure system, and the structure shrinks down to the size of a desk and fits in the back of a minivan.

The ExploraDome made an appearance in the skyway in recent weeks at 100 S. 5th St., as part of a promotion of Caribou Coffee’s Northern Lite lattes that contribute a portion of proceeds to the planetarium construction.

The ExploraDome is not the only substitute for astronomy buffs in the planetarium’s absence. Joe’s Garage in Loring Park has served as the host of lunar-eclipse viewing parties, the spot for college students to try out a professor’s telescopes, the hangout for people mourning the demotion of Pluto’s planet status and the place to view Mars until sunrise during the planet’s nearest approach to Earth in 60,000 years.

Gary Reetz, vice president of HGA, said the firm’s recent work on planetariums across the country indicates a renewed interest in space exploration.

“The big thing was Omni/Imax theaters, then it was 3D, and now we’re building planetariums,” Reetz said. “If you live in the city, you can’t ever see the stars because of light pollution. ... It’s a way to reconnect.”