Bell Museum’s new planetarium brings the universe home

July 11, 2018
Bell planetarium interior

Stretched out in a tilt-back seat, a space traveler shoots up into the void. In seconds, Earth recedes to a blue dot, the solar system shrinks to a bubble, and a faint blur grows and resolves into a star circled by seven tiny exoplanets. The year: 2018.

Once the realm of science fiction, virtual journeys through the stars—or along any other path traced by science—have become reality with the Whitney and Elizabeth MacMillan Planetarium, opening at the University of Minnesota’s new Bell Museum.

Located on the St. Paul campus, the new 120-seat planetarium employs space-age tools for sending visitors anywhere in the universe.

“We’re the first in the world to have this kind of screen,” says planetarium manager Sally Brummel. “We can [display] the classic night sky, any time or from any place.”

Visitors eager to see actual stars and planets can do so from the planetarium’s outdoor rooftop observation deck.

The planetarium’s programming also extends to a new permanent exhibit, “Life in the Universe.” It will cover, among other topics, “how Earth formed and what the requirements are for a planet to be able to host life,” says U astrophysics professor Lawrence Rudnick, who helped design the installation (read more about U of M faculty help in creating the new Bell).

With input from numerous U scientists, the planetarium is poised to help students and the public see Earth in new ways. For example, Brummel is working on stories about Minnesota water, using technology that can project up-to-date images of state and global water patterns on the planetarium screen.

If the planetarium has a main goal, it’s to generate for visitors the sense of adventure and delight scientists feel whenever nature reveals a secret.

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An original version of this story appeared in Minnesota Alumni magazine.

Bell Museum Grand Opening

The Bell Museum grand opening weekend is set for July 13-15. As always, admission for students is free during regular museum hours.