Coding the Cosmos: How We Develop Interactive Planetarium Shows

June 14, 2023

With summer well underway, we’re excited to share new exhibits and activities with our valued visitors and members. On Saturday, June 24, we’ll premiere a new Planetarium show, Traditions of the Summer Sky, alongside Planetarium Pilots, an all-new, self-guided experience. Have you ever wondered what it takes to develop the educational content and the dazzling visuals of a Planetarium show? Like all of our exhibits and learning experiences, it takes hard work and the collaboration of experts across The Lawrence to create engaging experiences that keep our members and visitors returning for more space exploration.

In 1973, The Lawrence began its pioneering journey into Planetarium program development with the first participatory Planetarium shows. Since those first programs, our interactive, inquiry-based approach has distinguished our Planetarium shows from what one might find in other museums and science centers. Visitors are encouraged to follow their curiosity, ask questions, and observe what they see on the dome. Our Planetarium shows are built with this approach as the starting point.

The next step in developing a new Planetarium show is choosing what topics to cover. The universe is a big place, so there’s no shortage of stars, planets, nebulae, and other potential fodder. As Planetarium Director Dr. Bryan Mendez revealed, the topics for Planetarium shows are sometimes determined by the areas of expertise and curiosity of Planetarium team members.

“Some of it is based on my own interests that I bring to the job,” said Dr. Mendez. “For example, I have been doing work in cultural astronomy for years, and I brought that background with me. My philosophy is that people are most engaged when they learn about science concepts in a context relevant to their daily experience. This background informed our work on the upcoming Traditions of the Summer Sky show.”

In addition to traditional space programming, the Planetarium team has begun to see the dome as a tool for teaching about other fields of science. To explore these topics, the Planetarium team enlists the help of other experts at the science center and the university more broadly. For example, Dr. Mendez and his team are working with curriculum developers of The Lawrence’s ocean literacy program MARE to develop a future show exploring ocean science. The Lawrence has also worked with UC Berkeley scientists and experts at The Lawrence on a program exploring the groundbreaking gene-editing tool CRISPr, and its potential application as a treatment for sickle cell disease.

Once the educational content has been chosen and scripted, the show’s visuals can be developed. Our Planetarium uses multiple software programs to record and display those sweeping views of Jupiter or the zooming flyby of the Sun. While under the hood, the details can get pretty complex, but you don’t need to be an expert coder to program a Planetarium show.

“Coding the buttons that presenters press is pretty intuitive, and controlling the dome  is actually somewhat similar to a video game,” said Ellen Torres Thompson, Planetarium Lead Educator. “All of the software uses real data sets from NASA to display objects in space. Using my favorite development program, I can control the camera, zoom around the Universe, and record what’s shown on my computer screen for display on the Planetarium dome.”

The final crucial step to developing an engaging and interactive Planetarium show is training the Planetarium presenters. Like many of the museum floor staff, most of our Planetarium presenters are UC Berkeley students. The Lawrence also relies heavily on adult and teen volunteers to facilitate public programs throughout the museum. While many Planetarium presenters are astronomy students, all are welcome to lead space explorations in the dome, even English majors. New students shadow current presenters to learn the ropes, extensively practice presenting shows, “driving” the Planetarium from behind the control center, and fielding visitors’ questions.

“Answering audience questions is my favorite part of presenting Planetarium shows,” said Ellen. “Kids always have such great questions, and their ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ as the dome flies through space are always entertaining.”

Beyond our traditional interactive shows, Dr. Mendez and his team are imagining new ways for people to interact with a Planetarium. Planetarium Pilots is a self-directed drop-in experience that allows visitors to control the Planetarium and choose where to travel and what to learn.

“For years, it has been a dream to be able to make use of the Planetarium between interactive shows,” said Dr. Mendez. “In Planetarium Pilots, visitors can control the view on the dome, flying to different places in the universe and learning about what they see there. We’re really excited to share this experience with our visitors.”

The culmination of all this hard work is new engaging experiences for our audience. Traditions of the Summer Sky is a reimagining of our classic Imagine the Sky Tonight show that explores constellations and other points of interest in the summer sky through a multicultural lens. Learn about Jewish, Mayan, Chinese, and other cultural traditions around celestial objects and share your own knowledge and experience. Planetarium Pilots and Traditions of the Summer Sky open on Saturday, June 24.

Recent News Stories