Star-starved Londoners will once again be able to enjoy the wonders of the universe next year when a new planetarium opens at Greenwich.
The National Maritime Museum is building a state-of-the-art star theatre as part of a £15million redevelopment of the old Royal Observatory.
It comes as Madame Tussauds prepares to close the world famous, green-domed London Planetarium in Baker Street as I revealed exclusively in the Evening Standard last week.
The new Peter Harrison Planetarium at Greenwich is named after one of Britain’s richest men who has donated £3million to the project. It is due to open in spring next year although the first new galleries open next week.
Work has already begun on building the planetarium which has a striking modern design for a site as historic as the 325-year-old Royal Observatory.
Sitting on the world’s prime meridian – zero degrees longitude – it resembles a cone tilted at 51.5 degrees, the latitude of London, to point towards the North Star.
The cone, clad in bronze, will be sliced at right angles to align with the celestial equator. Its shiny surface will reflect the sky, day and night.
The planetarium will give visitors a realistic view of the night sky – but then let them journey out into space thanks to brilliant digital computer effects.
Greenwich astronomer Dr Robert Massey told me: “We will have one of the best equipped planetariums in the world.
“We will be using the latest equipment, including a hi-tech laser system, plus an optical projector that will create superb images of the stars.”
He added: “We don’t accept Tussauds’ premise that people aren’t interested in astronomy any more. We get 900,000 visitors a year coming to Greenwich and the numbers will grow when the new site opens.
“We’re simply responding to demand. People have always been fascinated by the wonders of the universe and Man’s place in space.
“Visitors will find that, unlike Tussauds, we won’t charge a fortune for a ticket. We haven’t decided on the planetarium charge yet but it will be reasonable – and most of our other galleries are free.
“Also the high-tech projection facilities will be combined with talks by real astronomers.”
The old planetarium at Greenwich, which opened in the early 1960s, has closed while the new exhibition centre is developed. It had only 48 seats – the new theatre will seat 120 in comfort.
London architects Allies and Morrison designed the planetarium which is part of the museum’s Time and Space project. The image right is the architect’s impression of how it will look. (© Allies & Morrison)
Tycoon Harrison, 69, who led the way in developing backbone technology for the internet in the UK, is a keen yachtsman and has made the biggest private donation to the museum’s Universal Appeal, launched three years ago.
Other new attractions, which will double the area of the observatory open to the public, will include galleries showing Greenwich’s pivotal role in measuring time and helping sailors determine their position at sea.
The first four Time galleries will open on Wednesday next week.
The Royal Observatory, designed by Christopher Wren, is home of Greenwich Mean Time and one of the most important historic scientific sites in the world.
Visitors flock there to stand astride the Prime Meridian line with one foot in each of the eastern and western hemispheres.
© Paul Sutherland. Unauthorised reproduction forbidden.
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