Two students doing a simulated spacewalk in the Test Bed area of the Sudekum Planetarium

The Test Bed area at the Sudekum Planetarium focuses on Newton's laws with activities including launches, "moonwalks" and simulated spacewalks. Image Credit: Sudekum Planetarium

At the new Sudekum Planetarium and Space Chase exhibits in Nashville, Tenn., visitors can launch rockets, walk on the moon and see the night sky as it looks from anywhere in the world. These are just a few of the exciting features of the new facilities, which opened in the summer of 2008 at the Adventure Science Center.

The planetarium, in the heart of Tennessee, actually dates back to 1952 when the Sudekum family donated the funds for a planetarium in memory of Nashville entrepreneur and philanthropist Tony Sudekum. A gift from the Sudekum family in 2002, to celebrate the planetarium's 50th year, led to the vision of a new, modern facility using the latest technologies.

The 8,000-square-foot first floor of Space Chase opened in June 2008. Through NASA's Museum Alliance and support from many NASA centers, the Science Center has incorporated NASA mission data and high-resolution NASA images into its exhibits.

NASA's Museum Alliance is a network of museums, science centers, planetariums, observatories, NASA visitor centers, zoos, aquariums, botanical gardens and nature centers that wish to share NASA content and resources with their local audiences. The alliance supports NASA's goal of engaging Americans in NASA missions.

Planetarium director Kris McCall said the Space Chase exhibits and programs in the Sudekum Planetarium suit all kinds of visitors, from those who are just passing through, to those who are looking for deeper content, to somewhere in between.

Visitors walking on a map of the solar system

The Planet Walk is a floor map of the solar system and is a popular exhibit for all ages. Image Credit: Sudekum Planetarium

"You can streak by, scratch the surface or dig in," McCall said.

In the center's Test Bed area, visitors can launch rockets 25 feet in the air, don a harness and simulate walking on the moon, and simulate a spacewalk by sitting in a chair that floats on a frictionless surface. "The Test Bed appears to be all about space exploration, but its focus is really Newton's Laws of Motion," McCall said.

In the Solar System Survey, visitors can see and hear the story of the solar system via a five-foot dynamic sphere called Worlds of Wonder. In addition to the story shared on the illuminated sphere, nearby screens give supplemental information about sunspots, tsunamis, volcanoes, rovers on Mars and more as they are discussed in the main feature.

A mechanical Earth-moon model illustrates the phases of the moon, and an Earth-sun model explains day and night and the seasons. These orreries use round objects that rotate and revolve to demonstrate the relative positions and motions of Earth, the moon and the sun.

A large-scale model of the solar system shows the size of the planets compared to each other. Touch-screens in front of each planet allow visitors to interactively explore each world. Guests can calculate their age and weight on a specific planet or object. They can also see how long it would take to deliver a pizza by car to another planet and how long it would take to travel there in a plane, a spacecraft or at the speed of light.

Visitors working with the Tilt a World table

The Tilt a World exhibit is a twisty table with satellite photographs of Earth. Visitors explore Earth by tilting and twisting the table to go to another location or zoom in or out. Image Credit: Sudekum Planetarium

On The Planet Walk children and families can "walk" around in the same way the planets orbit the sun. A floor map shows Mercury, Venus and Earth, with directional arrows for how the planets revolve around the sun and the direction of each planet's rotation. "I've seen complete families out there doing The Planet Walk," McCall said.

Tilt a World is a twisty table that functions similarly to Google Earth. The round table features a satellite image database of Earth's surface. By tilting the table side to side, the image "flies" north, south, east or west. By twisting the table left or right the image zooms in or zooms out. Visitors can find their house, school, NASA centers and more.

"I saw (on a recent) Sunday afternoon 16 people around this table," McCall said. "They were two-deep. ... If I go by it and there's nobody there, I'm tempted to stop and play with it myself."

The building itself is its own exhibit. The architecture aligns with the cardinal points -- north, south, east and west -- and with windows that align perfectly for views of certain moonsets and solstice sunsets. On the exterior of the building is the world's largest star map with outlines of the constellations.

Future plans for the currently unfinished second floor include an Infinity Star Chamber, which will have visitors seeing stars everywhere they look. McCall described the chamber as the "ultimate house of mirrors." With mirrors on the floors, ceiling and walls and LED light "stars," visitors will be immersed in outer space.

"If you look down, up, all you see are stars," she said. "You don't see the floor. All you see is space. Watch out! That first step is a doozy."

An audience seated inside the planetarium

The Sudekum Planetarium is the first planetarium in the U.S. to have a fully integrated, hybrid system, with optical images and digital images together at the same time. Image Credit: Sudekum Planetarium

The real stars of the show are the ones in the Sudekum Planetarium. The night sky is recreated by the combination of an optical star projector and full-dome digital projectors. The Sudekum Planetarium is the first planetarium in the U.S. to have a fully integrated, hybrid system, with optical images and digital images together at the same time, McCall said.

The optical star projector projects a magnificent 6.5 million stars onto the planetarium's dome. By comparison, the old projector displayed only 2,534 stars. "It's quite a spectacular sky," McCall said.

The full-dome digital projection system adds the capability to outline and label constellations, incorporate images and animation, fly through a three-dimensional stellar database, and many other possibilities. The "full-dome" capability means the entire dome can be filled horizon to horizon with dramatic and immersive visuals.

While technology is impressive, McCall stressed the unique effectiveness of the planetarium lies in the interaction between the planetarium staff and guests. "When we combine state of the art technology with talented and enthusiastic planetarium staff, the result is an engaging and inspirational exploration of the universe around us," McCall said.

Visitors are thoroughly enjoying the new facility, McCall said. Children, teenagers, adults, seniors, local Tennesseans and people from all over are enthusiastic about the new offerings. "The response has been rewarding," McCall said. "Every so often you'll see a child who doesn't want to leave. Now, sometimes it’s an adult who doesn’t want to leave."

Related Resources
Sudekum Planetarium   →
Adventure Science Center   →
NASA Museum Alliance   →
NASA Education Web site   →

Heather R. Smith/NASA Educational Technology Services