Reaching for the stars: Planetarium in line for $1.5 million upgrade

Matthew Lane • Feb 28, 2007 at 12:03 PM

Adam Thanz sits in the planetarium at Bays Mountain. Thanz hopes that funding for planetarium upgrades will be approved. Photo by Erica Yoon.


KINGSPORT - The Bays Mountain Park Planetarium could receive a $1.5 million overhaul in the coming years, replacing the aging and obsolete equipment with a new state-of-the art digital star projector, surround sound and an LED lighting system.

As part of the annual budget discussions, the Kingsport Board of Mayor and Aldermen has held two meetings in the past 30 days to discuss various capital improvement projects within the city. One of the projects calls for the complete refurbishing of the planetarium, with $1 million being earmarked in the 2008 fiscal year and $241,000 in fiscal years 2009 and 2010.

The BMA has not approved the five-year capital improvement plan (CIP), and City Manager John Campbell said funding for the planetarium project could come from the Visitor Enhancement Program. The VEP would be a separate fund used for capital projects related to tourism with the money coming from a proposed increase (1 percent to 2 percent) of the hotel/motel tax.

"This would be a very good project for it," Campbell said. "It would very likely come from that program, at least the vast majority of (the funding)."

Planetarium Director Adam Thanz gave a presentation to the BMA last month during a CIP meeting and outlined the improvements he would like to see take place at the planetarium.

Thanz said the theater is aging, and along with the age, the technology is changing. Thanz is calling for a complete renovation of the planetarium, adding a new projector, new seats, new surround system and lighting system. The project does not call for an expansion of the planetarium or an increase in the number of seats available.

"A lot of the equipment is original to the park or it's almost as old. We're looking at 15 to 35 years old for almost everything in there," Thanz said. "There's the necessity for just the natural replacement of aging equipment. There's also the issue of the technology changing to the point where some of the technology we use is becoming obsolete."

One piece of obsolete equipment is the slide projector the park uses during planetarium shows. Thanz said there is only one local business where the park can get slides developed, and sometimes the slides have to be sent off, which could take up to a week to get back.

The technology available now for theaters far surpasses the planetarium's current abilities, Thanz said.

"The devices are smaller, better quality and can do more. It would allow us a lot more options as to what we can do in the theater and opening things up to be much more live," Thanz said. "It will really open up things for us, for education and having a fun time in the planetarium."

Thanz said the system he is looking at would be twofold and include a star projector and a full-dome digital projector. The cost of the system would be around $750,000. Any new surround system and lighting system would be a separate expense.

"We're looking at a system that can have exceptional star quality, even better than we currently have and will be much more reliable. The current (projector) needs periodic repairs," Thanz said.

The star projector in use at the planetarium is on a geared system, which takes time to readjust if someone wants to move the skyscape forward or backward in time, Thanz said.

"Let's say you wanted to see what it looks like three years from now. You turn it on and go ahead three years, it would take about 15 minutes to run the projector on their gears," Thanz said. "The new system, you would type in a date and immediately project the new planet alignment."

The other half of the projection system is full-dome digital video projection.

"It's a technology that allows you to project video imagery that covers the entire dome. Right now we have a video projector that's like a rectangle up there," Thanz said. "This new video projector, you won't see a rectangle. It's the whole dome. It's kind of like going outside and looking all around you. You see stuff all around you. That's what it's going to be like."

The system will also include a built-in 3D database of stars, galaxies, planets and solar system.

"We can leave the Earth, travel around the solar system and everything would be projected correctly. It would feel like you were actually doing this," he said.

The current star projector is more than 30 years old, and the video projector is almost 20 years old. One of the problems with the current system, Thanz said, is the operator of the equipment is always stuck behind a console and is not able to walk around the planetarium during shows.

However, the new system would include a wireless PDA-style control pad which would allow the operator to be anywhere in the planetarium and conduct a show.

"It's one thing to have a little bit of magic with it, but it's another when all you're hearing is a faceless voice," Thanz said. "We've had a problem with that, and we're wanting to become visible. It makes for a much better program when you can actually see the person who is talking."

Other renovations would include a new skin for the dome ceiling of the planetarium, new seats, a surround system and LED lighting system. The planetarium holds more than a dozen shows a week, all at a cost of $1.50 each. Most of the shows are produced at the park.

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