- The Washington Times - Friday, December 22, 2006

NEW ORLEANS — What did the stars look like the day you were born? What’s that constellation called with the three stars lined up like a belt? What does the sun look like when seen through a telescope?

A new planetarium has just opened at Shreveport, La.’s Sci-Port Discovery Center where you can find the answers to all these questions.

Like most planetariums, it offers dazzling shows about the universe and models of the planets. However, Sci-Port expects its biggest attraction to be something else: the unique interactive nature of some of the exhibits.

The Dayna & Ronald L. Sawyer Space Dome Planetarium opened Nov. 18 as part of a 25,000-square-foot Space Center addition to Sci-Port Discovery Center. The planetarium was designed by Al Najjar, Sci-Port’s president and chief executive.

The dome of the planetarium hangs at a 45-degree angle in a space cut out from the second floor of the addition. You can watch planetarium shows from first-floor seats or the second-floor balcony.

Models of the planets hang from columns set around the other side of the balcony, which is actually the outside of the planetarium shell and is painted in orange, yellow and black to represent the sun, with lights to simulate the solar currents.

Louisiana has three other planetariums, not including the planetarium at the Audubon Nature Center in eastern New Orleans, which closed permanently because of damage from Hurricane Katrina.

Five kiosks in front of the seating at the Sci-Port planetarium make the largest difference between this facility and other planetariums in the state and around the world.

About a third of the time, the Sci-Port planetarium offers interactive exhibits, with three ways for patrons to manipulate the laser-beam images on the dome.

One interactive program lets people see how the sky looked at their birthplace when they were born. The image appears on the dome with your name for everyone in the planetarium to see for several minutes.

Planetarium spokesman Eric Gipson could only describe it as “totally awesome” when he saw the sky from his own birth date (Dec. 13, 1963) up there , including a formation of stars that he swears resembles nothing so much as the “Gipson family nose.” He plans to take his 6-year-old daughter to see her birth sky on her birthday.

Another interactive program is a constellation challenge in which an image is displayed on the dome and you have to guess what it is. (The constellation with three stars in a row like a belt is Orion the Hunter.)

The most complex of the three interactive programs is the International Space Station. “One person controls an arm of the International Space Station, another controls the space shuttle, another controls the solar panels,” says Rebecca Nesbitt, the Sci-Port’s program director. “They all have to work together. If the solar panels aren’t at the right angle and don’t collect enough energy, everyone goes down.”

Movies and live presentations will split the planetarium’s non-interactive time.

Other areas of Sci-Port’s new Space Center include rooftop telescopes where you can have a safe view of the sun.

The center also includes a 32-foot-long pendulum that rings chimes at the edge of a circle as the Earth — and therefore the room — turns beneath it; a solarium in which the skylight is a 20-foot sundial; and interactive astronomy, space and math exhibits.

The planetarium and Space Center were built with $5.1 million from private donors and $6.5 million in public money — $3 million from Shreveport, $2 million from Louisiana and $1.5 million from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

The planetarium replaces a city-owned, 1960s-era planetarium that closed about 18 months ago.

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Sci-Port Discovery Center, 820 Clyde Fant Parkway (on the downtown Shreveport riverfront), Shreveport, La.; visit www.sciport.org/spacecenter.htm or phone 877/724-7678.

Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday and until 6 p.m. Saturday; 1 to 6 p.m. Sunday. Admission, including Imax Dome Theatre: adults, $17; children 3 to 2, $12.

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