KINGSPORT — Work continues on the $1.3 million upgrade of the planetarium at Bays Mountain Park, with demolition virtually complete and construction expected to begin in the coming weeks.
However, the planetarium is not expected to open later this year as scheduled and it likely will be February 2009 until schoolchildren and others will be able to get their first glimpse of the new, state-of-the-art theater.
This past March, workers began gutting the planetarium of its equipment, seats and flooring with plans calling for the installation of a new, digital star projector, surround sound, LED lighting system, new floor and seats.
Today, all of the seats and equipment from inside the planetarium have been removed, several walls and doors have been knocked out and crews this past week were working to remove the last of the tile.
“The work being done now is the dirty work,” said Adam Thanz, planetarium director. “They’ve already removed all of the equipment, the seats, everything from this theater. It’s now just an empty room and they’re working on many steps for the first part of the construction.”
The next phase of the project calls for the construction of the floor, which will be sloped with the seats in the shape of an arch.
“It allows everybody to see who’s up front and also gets the audience a little higher up and closer to the dome,” Thanz said. “We want to make you feel like you are on a field looking at a starry night sky or walking around in Egypt or walking on the moon or flying through the solar system.”
On Oct. 15, the dome company will be in town to begin its monthlong installation of the planetarium’s new dome. The old dome was installed in 1971. After Nov. 15, the construction company will come back in and install the sloped floor, new seats and flooring cover, carpeting, audio equipment and lighting.
“The last thing is the new projector, the star attraction,” Thanz said.
The planetarium’s old projection system equipment was 15 to 35 years old and obsolete — the star projector ran on mechanical gears, and stars were projected onto the dome by a light shining through a metal plate with holes. In addition, the park used slides to project images onto the planetarium’s dome, but there is now only one local business capable of developing slides.
Kingsport has purchased a new, state-of-the-art projector from the German-based company Zeiss, which is considered the finest optical company in the world and made the first commercial planetarium instrument in the 1920s.
The new system will be computerized and operated with a wireless controller. It will allow for almost instant changes in the sky from one point in time to another, show brighter stars, and have an accurate representation of planet positions.
The system also has full dome video with five data projectors, wireless controls and microphone to allow the host to move around the planetarium while speaking or giving a presentation, and a video game-like controller where a student can control the action from his or her seat.
“This is not a movie house. We don’t push play and walk out. We’re in here all the time, we give live programming, we’re interacting with the audience. It’s a learning environment, a fun environment, and it makes our planetarium very unique.”
The Zeiss system allows users to travel throughout the mapped universe, going instantly to any known planet, star or astronomical feature — all in real time or at any time in the past or future. Planetarium officials are also able to tap into databases to show the International Space Station at its present location or the number of GPS satellites currently orbiting the Earth.
“We want it to not only be fun, but we want people to actually learn something, get something more than just some facts; maybe some understanding,” Thanz said.
Zeiss officials are scheduled to be in town Jan. 5 for three weeks installing and fine-tuning the equipment. The planetarium is scheduled to re-open in February 2009, Thanz said.
Initially, park officials said the planetarium would re-open in the late summer or early fall, but those dates have since been pushed back until next year due to some delays, Thanz said.
“It took longer than expected. As with any construction there’s going to be some type of delays,” Thanz said. “We’re making sure that everything is done correctly to state standards, which is what delayed us.”
But now, the project is moving along well with Thanz saying there are absolute deadlines in place now, with things happening by specific dates.
“Things are starting back up, physical things. There was other work going on behind the scenes, but now that we have things rolling, it is exciting and stressful at the same time,” he said.
For years, planetarium officials have created their own programming for thousands of students in the Tri-Cities region. With the new planetarium, Thanz said a staff of three to four people is working on new programs for the system, and they hope to have three done when the planetarium reopens next year.
Allen Davis, senior exhibit technician at Bays Mountain, does animation, modeling and 3-D design for the planetarium. Davis has been working for months on “Connections” — the main program expected to launch when the planetarium reopens next February.
“In the past we’ve dealt with astronomy things, but we’re really wanting to showcase what can be done up here, as far as involving scenes from nature,” Davis said. ”How nature and astronomy tie in together.”
The Times-News got a sneak-peak at a few of the scenes for the new program, scenes which are being made with two Hollywood-level programs — Lightwave 3-D for the animation and Vue Infinite for the terrain modeling.
“The show now will have different animals, including deer, butterfly, chipmunks, a little bit of everything,” Thanz said. “We’re not going to give away all the bells and whistles for this show, but it will be a really good idea of what we can produce.”
More than 150,000 people visit Bays Mountain Park each year, making it one of Tennessee’s Top 50 Most Visited Attractions, according to the latest report produced by the Tennessee Department of Tourist Development.
One of the nation’s largest city-owned parks with 3,550 acres, Bays Mountain Park features 27 miles of hiking trails, wildlife habitats, the 40-foot domed planetarium, a 44-acre lake and trails for mountain biking.