Planetarium to get new star show

Londoners will be able to journey through the universe with the aid of the world's most advanced star projector when it is installed in the London Planetarium. The acquisition of the Digistar Mark 2 projector is part of a planned pounds 4.5m redevelopment of the planetarium.

'The new projector has 3-D quality and the computer graphics let you fly through the night sky,' said Undine Concannon, the planetarium's administrator.

'It changes the way stars look depending on where you are in space. It will take you to a star 200 or 300 light years away.'

The Digistar Mark 2, which costs about pounds 500,000, was first developed as a database of stars for Nasa. Using computer graphics to project the night sky, it will replace the planetarium's Zeiss Star projector which has been in operation for 36 years.

The acquisition is expected to mark a return to the popular space-based shows that the planetarium recently abandoned in favour of a show about the Earth.

The current show, which focuses on environmental damage and the population explosion, has not proved as popular with visitors as features on the universe. 'People come to the planetarium to see the stars,' said a staff member.

'This is a bit of a Greenpeace show. People who come regularly say it isn't as good as others we've done.'

An elaborate laser and rock music show, which was abandoned more than three years ago because of declining audiences, is also likely to remain off the menu, but the Space Trail - a hands-on display with computers and scale models of the planets - is expected to stay and may be expanded.

The complete redevelopment will begin on 31 October when the planetarium will close for six months. It is the first major refurbishment since the planetarium opened in 1958.

The redevelopment follows a five-year, pounds 21m refurbishment of Madame Tussaud's waxworks, the planetarium's sister company, which is also owned by Pearson plc, the media and entertainment group.

'It is a giant leap for the planetarium. It is going to be a complete transformation,' said Juliet Simpkins, a spokeswoman.

The planetarium, which runs 13 shows a day, hopes that the redevelopment will attract a wider audience.

Many of the 650,000 annual visitors are children with a basic understanding of astronomy. Staff hope that the new projector, which gives a virtual reality effect, will bring in an assortment of astronomy buffs and thrill-seekers.

The planetarium is also aiming to become a popular venue for classical concerts and plays. It is building a stage in the auditorium and is redesigning the seating, which is now cirular, so it faces the stage.

A larger entrance, where displays and exhibitions can be staged, is also being designed by architects Fletcher Priest.

To attract more foreign tourists, simultaneous translation into German, French, Spanish and Italian will be installed, along with wheelchair access and facilities for the hard of hearing.

As for the planetarium's Zeiss Star projector - which two years ago narrowly survived an IRA fire-bomb - it will be going into retirement as an exhibit after almost 40 years of service.