Planetarium renovation gives HISD fourth-graders the best cosmic view in the house

The Houston Museum of Natural Science (HMNS) unveiled its newly renovated Burke Baker Planetarium on March 11, and roughly 75 of HISD’s Southmayd Elementary School’s fourth-graders were the first to experience it.

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Through a long-standing partnership with the museum, all 14,000 HISD fourth-graders take a field trip there each year, but the planetarium now boasts a new seamless inner surface on the dome and a high-resolution, digital-laser projection system so powerful only astronauts will have a better view of celestial objects.

“When it first opened in 1964, the planetarium used giant opto-mechanical machines that simply replicated the night sky,” said Dr. Carolyn Sumners, vice president of astronomy and physics at HMNS, who created the planetarium show. “This extreme makeover allows visitors to travel through time and space to anywhere our data and imaginations can take us. Whether it’s to neighboring planets, distant galaxies, a stellar birth cloud, a star in its death throes, or even back to the Big Bang itself, every image will be about as sharp and vivid as the human eye can perceive.”

The new system delivers an image so clear that students are able to identify the streets of Houston from space. On opening day, they toured the Valles Marineris on the surface of Mars and explored the storms of Jupiter’s Great Red Spot, as well as one her many moons, Europa.

“I really thought we were turning when we zoomed across the sky,” said Nevaeh after the 30-minute show concluded. “I got a little dizzy, but it was so much fun!”

“I felt like I was flying through space,” said Ivan. “I liked learning about the big dipper, Orion, and the moon. It was so cool seeing how the moon goes ‘round the earth, and the earth goes ‘round the sun.”

“We are very excited about the renovations,” added Teresa Phillips, manager of elementary science curriculum for HISD. “For generations, our fourth-graders have been able to experience the night sky and observe different objects in the planetarium. The incredible digital clarity of the new system will allow our students to clearly visualize abstract concepts, such as the phases of the moon and the rotation of the Earth. We appreciate the ongoing collaboration between our two organizations, and I know that the renovated planetarium provided an experience for our fourth-graders today that they will not soon forget.”