Story by Tonia Stacey-Gutting
Wild weather, space odysseys and one magic treehouse - the Morehead Planetarium at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is fresh off a winter break and ready for some star gazing.
You don't have to contend with the cold weather to do it, either. The planetarium allows visitors to explore the universe from the cushy seats of an indoor theater. Sit back, rest your head and look straight up at the 68-foot dome, and you begin to feel it. The room goes dark with a hush then lights up to exclamations from young and old. As the show flies on, you are blasted by the wonder of it all - beyond you, beyond North Carolina, beyond Earth.
The planetarium takes advantage of the university's resources to offer learning experiences for children and adults. Science exhibits and lectures, astronomy classes and even a carnival accompany the planetarium shows on the schedule. Dinner and dancing at the planetarium? The dome was constructed in 1949, but Morehead has embraced the best technology of the day to teach and excite audiences. Astronauts trained here for many years, including members of the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission.
In 1925, Elis Stromgren called planetariums "a schoolroom under the vault of heaven, a drama with the celestial bodies as actors." The celestial bodies continue to be the actors today, now with new ways as Morehead recently retired its last Zeiss projector. The planetarium hosts full-dome digital video projection shows. The technology brings the computer-generated images alive all around and above, making audiences feel as if they are a moving part of the show. "You are immersed in the action of a science experience," said marketing manager Karen Kornegay.
Several programs rotate on the schedule with topics and formats geared to different ages. The new "Solar System Odyssey" takes animated heroes on a race around the computer-generated galaxy to find a new place for humans to live. Considering what is required to make a good home, visitors are likely to emerge grateful for this unique Earth. It is recommended for ages 8 and older.
"Magic Tree House Space Mission" brings to life the characters from the popular series of children's books.. The show is for ages 5 and older.
Fort Bragg mother Angela Gorski recently accompanied her son's Boy Scout troop to the planetarium. "We had a great time. I do recommend it. I was really impressed with the 'Magic Tree House' program. It's great especially if you have kids who have read those books," she said.
One of the most popular shows, "Carolina Skies," features a live host who explains what can currently be seen in the sky with the lifelike images circulating overhead. A special Valentine's edition of this show will explore the constellations' significance to legends of love through the ages.
If you prefer real stars, head outdoors for a skywatching session at Jordan Lake State Park. Morehead educators lead these free sessions with telescopes available. They are scheduled one Saturday a month.