KANSAS CITY — With the star ball banished, the sky's the limit now for the Gottlieb Planetarium.
A new 360-degree and 3-D projection system now operating in the funny-shaped building next to Union Station is hoped to bring back audiences and send them to the moon and beyond.
And the best part is that the system was assembled by local talent at a fraction — no, a fraction of a fraction — of what it would have cost to purchase from a planetarium vendor.
"We now, for the first time, have the capacity for shows that the public will want to come see," said Tim Kristl, vice president of the Astronomical Society of Kansas City.
It will be easier to create planetarium programs that tie in with Science City and with traveling exhibits at Union Station. They can also be customized to match school curricula.
"Modern planetariums are able to reach out and away from just astronomy," said Damon Bradshaw, Science City's planetarium specialist. "They can get into history and culture and even biology and chemistry. This sort of projection system gives us the capability to do that."
Local astronomers worked with Science City and Union Station to devise the new system, along with financial assistance from the Arvin Gottlieb Charitable Foundation.
The planetarium opened a decade ago with a traditional star-ball projection system, which was essentially a hollow sphere with a bright light inside and holes to cast a star field onto the dome above. But it was already old when it was installed and never really worked properly.
"It's been a monster to keep running," said Jeff Rosenblatt, director of Science City.
Last fall the star ball broke for the last time and officials began looking for a modern, digital system. The astronomical society, which had had a strained relationship with previous Union Station management, approached new station CEO George Guastello about a partnership.
Together, they consulted vendors who either had no experience with such a large planetarium — Union Station's is 60 feet in diameter — or were too expensive.
One price quoted was $766,000, Rosenblatt said.
Obviously, for cash-strapped Union Station, that was out of the question.
But research by Rick Henderson, an electronics professor and member of the astronomical society, along with expertise gleaned from the professional vendors and from local company Harvest Productions, led to a much cheaper solution.
They ended up buying, on their own, an extremely bright projector and a delicately polished, curved mirror that was custom-made in Australia. They coupled them with a Mac Pro computer and special software to create a system that, they say, is every bit as capable as the more expensive ones.
The price: about $27,000.
"The results are way better than we expected," Henderson said. "Anything you can show on the computer you can show on the dome."
Bradshaw explained that the digital images are intentionally distorted so that when they are projected onto the mirror and reflected back on the dome, they appear in proper shape and proportion.
Bradshaw and Rosenblatt said many smaller planetariums have similar systems, but it is unique for one as large as Science City's.
Because it was assembled in-house, the system does not have a name. So they dubbed it the BRT, for the three men who were most instrumental in putting it together: Bentley Ousley and Rick Henderson of the astronomical society and Tom Deffet, a software writer.
The Gottlieb Foundation gave the planetarium $30,000 late last year and will donate up to $100,000 more this year. That money will help staff the planetarium and subsidize school field trips, Guastello said.
The planetarium's new system currently shows just one program about the history of the telescope. But officials plan to expand offerings soon with other shows purchased commercially or produced in-house.
The astronomical society will create a series of shows about the night sky as seen from Kansas City during different seasons; it is working on one about the fall stars now. Images from the Hubble Space Telescope and other NASA products are in the public domain and available for free.
The planetarium may be able to tap into live cable feeds, whether from NASA or from a solar eclipse happening on another side of the planet.
The dome is also capable of showing theatrical movies, and the space can be rented for private parties or events. It recently was host to a New Age music concert and light show.
Henderson said the Gottlieb Planetarium has suffered from management, equipment and money problems over the years.
"I'm very hopeful this is going to be the turnaround," he said. "I'm hopeful this is a new beginning."