Catch science, rock shows at museum planetarium

Mike Dunham
Named for contributors Lowell and Tay Thomas, the Anchorage Museum's planetarium boasts a dome screen, 3-D graphics and surround sound.
Photo courtesy of Anchorage Museum
Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon" is one of several rock-and-light programs offered at the Thomas Planetarium.
Photo courtesy of Anchorage Museum
Some programs feature famous rock albums accompanied by wild HD graphics projected on the dome, like this image from Pink Floyd's "Wish You Were Here".
Photo courtesy of Anchorage Museum
"Led Zeppelin Cosmic Light Show" is one of the most popular shows at the Thomas Planetarium. Advance tickets are recommended for programs of band music accompanied by wild graphics.
Photo courtesy of Anchorage Museum
Most shows at the Thomas Planetarium explore astronomical phenomena, like the rings of Saturn.
Photo courtesy of Anchorage Museum
The Lagoon Nebula is shown in this image from "Wonders of the Universe," one of several programs in rotation at the Thomas Planetarium in the Anchorage Museum.
Photo courtesy of Anchorage Museum
Billions of stars play tug of war as two galaxies interact in "Wonders of the Universe" at the Thomas Planetarium.
Photo courtesy of Anchorage Museum
A NASA illustration of the new Mars rover, Curiosity, scheduled to land on the red planet tonight (Sunday, Aug. 5).
Omega Smith is the coordinator of the Thomas Planetarium at the Anchorage Museum. She recently graduated from the University of Hawaii, Hilo in astronomy and physics.
BOB HALLINEN / Anchorage Daily News

On Monday, Lowell and Tay Thomas took some friends to check out the surfaces of various planets and moons in our solar system. They did it at the Anchorage Museum planetarium that bears their name. The Thomases were major contributors to the domed theater located in the museum's Imaginarium wing.

"We got behind this project because we wanted to be helpful," said Lowell Thomas, former Alaska lieutenant governor, a bush pilot, author and documentarian who traveled the world with his father, well-known newsman Lowell Thomas Sr.

"I've always been interested in the sky and the heavens," he said. "When you're flying and look up at the night sky, you wonder about these things."

The show that the Thomas party attended, "New Horizons," is one of several productions featured at the planetarium this summer. Others include "Wonders of the Universe," with spectacular photographs of deep space taken by the Hubble Space Telescope, and "Experience the Aurora," with time-lapse images of spectacular displays recorded in Scandinavia and near Fairbanks.

"Experience the Aurora" is the most popular of these natural history shows, largely due to interest by tourists. But hot on its heels is a rock extravaganza, "The Led Zeppelin Cosmic Light Show." It's not really a light show, but a series of computer generated images, moving geometric patterns and animation accompanying several of the superband's greatest hits -- "Whole Lotta Love," "Ramble On," "The Immigrant Song," etc.

Planetarium experiences are often described as "immersive." You recline in comfortable seats with plenty of leg room and let your eyes turn upward. The room goes dark. Then the bowl-shaped ceiling, 24 feet in diameter, becomes the perceived reality, with giant planets rolling over your head with a clarity and depth that simulate 3-D.

The natural history shows are also chock-full of information. "Experience the Aurora" also goes far toward explaining how northern lights occur. Guides are generally on hand after these shows. In some cases, they handle the star shows themselves.

"I really like to do interactive presentations," said Omega Smith, the coordinator of the planetarium. Originally from Anchorage, she recently received degrees in astronomy and physics from the University of Hawaii in Hilo.

"There's the 'Guided Star Tour,' which is pretty much a traditional planetarium tour," she said. "But I try to bring up new things, things we can't see from here, like the southern skies. We have a planetarium, so I can look up anything I want, which is pretty cool."

Films about astronomy can get dated quickly, she said. "We just found a fifth moon of Pluto about a month ago. I try to point out the most contemporary findings, which stars might go supernova soon, the ones where we've found planets."

Smith said she was particularly excited by the planetarium's upcoming show, "Strange Planets," an audience-participation program focusing on so-called exoplanets -- that is, planets found outside our own solar system.

"The main thing is, I like to show people something that they can see if they look up that night," she said.

The rock extravaganzas -- Pink Floyd is in the mix -- are just fun, with spinning and evolving geometric forms and (occasionally) animated dramas paired with the songs. A solid sound system backs up the HD digital visuals -- in fact, fans of the bands might want to go just to hear the music.

The Led Zeppelin show opens with an interstellar vista resolving in a wild and alien mountainous landscape over which a fantasy depiction of the Zeppelin floats. The gentle beginning of "Stairway to Heaven" reveals a fairy-tale forest before escalating into wild bursts of colors and patterns.

"If you start feeling dizzy, look away for a few seconds," advised the guide before the start of the show. "You really aren't spinning, I promise."

While the shows can stimulate a kind of out-of-body feeling, dizziness hasn't been a problem for any member of the audience the times I've gone. And, though the official blurbs advise that the rock shows contain "adult subject matter," I haven't seen anything I'd call even subjective, much less prurient.

Because of the small capacity of the planetarium, 46 seats, some shows sell out, particularly Pink Floyd's "Wish You Were Here" on First Fridays. That may be in part because admission to the museum is free on those evenings; museum admission is required, in addition to separate tickets for the planetarium shows.

(But there are other free days at the museum. Today, for instance, certain bank card holders can get in at no charge -- see the ArtBeat column in today's Arts & Life section -- while still needing to buy a planetarium ticket. The tickets range from $6 for most astronomical shows to $10 for the rock shows. Museum members get a $2 discount.)

Whatever the reason, Fridays and Saturdays are the busiest days at the Thomas Planetarium. First Friday tickets should always be bought in advance, but the museum recommends buying advance tickets for all shows, particularly the music shows. This can be done at the museum website,

Whether you are a tourist or not, however, summer offers your best chance of getting into any of the shows. The planetarium runs shows daily. When the museum shifts to its winter schedule, public shows at the planetarium will be cut back to Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, with the rest of the week reserved for school groups and private parties.

I attended both the aurora and Led Zeppelin shows on Monday, just before and after the Thomas party took in the planet show, and had no trouble getting in. Had I tried to get into the Pink Floyd show at the last minute on Friday evening, however, it would have been a different story.

More shows will be added to the lineup in October, with more planets and some dinosaurs. In the meantime, summer -- especially this summer -- is a great time to take in the cosmos of stars and mind from the comfort of the great indoors.

Reach Mike Dunham at or 257-4332.

Rock shows

Cost: $10, $8 for museum members

“Dark Side of the Moon” (Pink Floyd), 5 p.m. Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays.

Lose yourself in Pink Floyd’s rock 'n’ roll masterpiece “Dark Side of the Moon.” This new full-dome music and light show interprets this classic album through mesmerizing HD graphics. This is not a laser show but the next generation of computer generated imagery. Audience advisory: adult subject matter.

“Wish You Were Here” (Pink Floyd), 7:30 p.m. Sept. 7.

“Led Zeppelin Cosmic Light Show,” 5 p.m. Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays

Be transported by mood-provoking abstract art, theme-based imagery and transportive effects choreographed to some of Led Zeppelin’s biggest hits, including “Whole Lotta Love,” “Immigrant Song” and “Ramble On.” Audience advisory: adult subject matter.

Natural history shows

Cost: $6 (except “Experience the Aurora”), $4 for children, $2 discounts for museum members

“Earth, Moon and Sun,” 11:30 a.m. Saturdays and Sundays; an animated show linking astronomy to American Indian legends.

“Guided Star Show,” 12:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, 6:30 p.m. Sept. 7; a live narrated tour of the night sky by a science educator.

“Contemporary Cosmos,” 4 p.m. Thursday, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays; discoveries in space that are transforming our understanding of the cosmos.

“New Horizons,” 3 p.m. daily; a journey to the planets and moons of our solar system.

“Wonders of the Universe,” 4 p.m. Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays; images of deep space from the orbiting Hubble Space Telescope

“Experience the Aurora,” 2 p.m. daily; $8, $6 for children, $2 discount for members; time-lapse footage captured in the Arctic Circle, “the next best thing to being under Alaska’s winter night sky.”

Coming soon

In addition to some of the above, the fall and winter schedule will feature:

“Dinosaur Passage to Pangaea,” an animated depiction of the supercontinent from which the present-day land masses were formed.

“Strange Planets,” a live, audience-participation program exploring the exoplanets (planets orbiting other stars), using data from NASA’s Kepler Mission.

“The Wall,” Pink Floyd’s 65-minute album, showing at 4:50 p.m. on Sundays.


LIVE FROM MARS: The 62-seat UAA Planetarium and Visualization Theater on the second floor of the Conoco Phillips Integrated Science Building has a limited schedule until the fall semester begins. However, a big-screen projection of NASA’s TV broadcast of the landing of the news Mars rover named Curiosity will be shown in the lecture hall on the first floor of the building (CPSB 120) tonight at 3101 Science Circle on the UAA campus.

The “Curiosity Landing Party” will start at 7:30 p.m. The rover is expected to land at 9:31 p.m. The signal will take 14 minutes to reach earth from Mars.

“During 7 terrifying minutes, the spacecraft will use aeroshells, parachutes, hydrazine rockets, and finally a tethered sky-crane technique to decelerate from 13,000 mph at the top of the atmosphere to a gentle touch-down on the surface,” says the press release. “Seating at this event will be first-come, first-served, but you can come and go as you please as long as there are available seats.” The event is free.

Anchorage Daily News