Visitors have been flocking to see the stars at the Hudson River Museum in Yonkers ever since the planetarium first opened its doors in 1957 inside the dining room of Glenview, the museum’s historic Victorian home.
As the museum grew and built a modern addition, a new, larger planetarium became part of the expansion project that was completed in 1969. While the 120-seat planetarium continued to evolve with the times, it was the $1.5 million renovation, completed in 2014, that truly brought it into the digital age and made it into the world-class facility that it is today.
“From the first mechanical projector to the last incarnation in 1987 — an instrument known as the Zeiss M1015 — our star projectors were all very elaborate clockwork devices,” says Marc Taylor, the museum’s manager of planetarium and science programs. “Yes, they showered stars and planets onto the planetarium’s dome. However, before our latest upgrades, if you wanted to show how the sky looked 2,000 years ago, you’d have to wind the machine backwards — which could take a while.
“Now, instead of gears regulating the position of the projectors, everything is computer controlled,” says Taylor, who’s been with the planetarium since 1999. “You just type in the date of the night sky you want to see and it immediately appears. Visitors can view how the sky will look 10,000 or 100,000 years from now in an instant,” he says.
That’s all thanks to the Ohira-Tech Megastar II, which can cover the planetarium’s dome with up to 20 million stars. “I really think this has the most realistic sky of any star projector I’ve ever seen,” Taylor says. “In here, a quick look at the Milky Way and it appears like a grayish band, but if you examine it closely, there will be stars that just tease the edge of visibility and that’s what makes our ‘sky’ look extremely realistic.”
Twin digital video projectors were also added during the renovation, along with a state-of-the-art sound system, allowing the planetarium to create narrated, 3D “flights” through the rest of the universe. In addition, the old planetarium dome was replaced with a smoother, truly hemispherical projection screen, measuring 40 feet in diameter.
Among those reaping the benefits of the updates are the 10,000 students who visit the planetarium each year. “These days kids are used to looking at things on a little screen. They come in here and that screen becomes the entire sky over their heads. They’re completely blown away by what they see — whether it’s a gigantic spinning Jupiter or the constellations coming to life in the night sky,” Taylor says.
While the planetarium is reserved for school and camp groups during the week, the public — 65,000 visitors a year — can get its share of the stars on the weekends, when the planetarium offers three shows on both Saturdays and Sundays. January shows range from “Earth, Moon and Sun,” which explores the relationship between our home planet and its most familiar neighbors (for younger children ages 5 and above), to a live show called “The Sky Tonight,” where visitors (targeted at ages 8 and above) can get a preview on the planetarium’s dome of what the sky that very evening will actually look like.
Complementing the shows are family workshops, which often delve into themes covered inside the planetarium. “On the weekends and school-break weeks, there are science workshops that range from demonstrations to take-home projects and a scientist in residence comes in once a month,” Taylor says. “The topics include everything from discovering planets around other stars to mapping out the surface of a planet hidden by clouds.”
The planetarium isn’t just getting rave reviews from its younger visitors. High school students are also drawn in by its programming, which might focus on finding their zodiac constellation or discovering the history of how planets form. In the spring, there are usually several interns who volunteer at the museum as part of their community service projects at the end of their senior year.
While programming for students and families has been a huge success, the planetarium is always looking to attract new audiences. “We’ve been hearing for a while from our visitors that they’re very interested in having planetarium shows solely for adults,” Taylor adds.
One of the very first events that the museum is doing to attract this crowd is “HRM After Dark” on Jan. 19, from 7 to 10 p.m. The evening will cater to 25- to 39-year-old patrons with a dance party featuring a DJ, craft beer and cocktails, hors d’oeuvres, a journey through the night’s sky in a special planetarium show and tours of the exhibition galleries. “The real point of the program is to expose people to all the possibilities of the museum and for them to have a lot of fun,” Taylor says.
Also on the radar is a “Valentine’s Under the Stars” event on Feb. 14, with a reception starting at 6 p.m., followed by a romantic-themed planetarium show for couples. Adds Taylor: “It’s an unusual date night for you and your partner in the early evening. We’ll wrap up by 7:30 p.m., so it leaves lots of time to go out to dinner afterward.”
With many of the stars shining brightly in the winter sky, Taylor will be able to point out a number of the highlights to look out for. Those include the constellations Sirius, which will be visible in the southern sky, along with Leo the Lion, a symbol of faithfulness and strength.
“And of course there’s the North Star, which is something I feature on Valentine’s Day because it is considered to be very constant. You often hear people say, ‘You’re my North Star. You’re my guiding light,’” Taylor says. He also notes that he can point out how many light-years a star is away so a couple can match it to the number of years they’ve been together and call it their star.
Also on the horizon is the premier of the planetarium’s first original show, “The Victorian’s Guide to the Galaxy,” which premieres on Feb. 10 and looks at how 19th-century scientists understood their universe. In the adjacent gallery, visitors will see some of the instruments that scientists used to view the stars in Victorian times. In addition, they can visit the museum’s coinciding art exhibition, “The Neo-Victorians: Contemporary Artists Revive Gilded-Age Glamour” (Feb. 10 to May 13), which highlights a wide range of contemporary artists’ engagement with the aesthetics of the 19th century.
“In the time of the Victorians, the Milky Way Galaxy seemed to be the extent of the universe,” Taylor says. “Turns out that there as many galaxies out there as there are grains of sand on Earth — and we can take you for a walk on the beach.”
For more, visit hrm.org.