On October 7, 2018 the U.S. Space & Rocket Center bade a fond farewell to an obscure gem in the realm of Huntsville movie viewing — the SpaceDome IMAX theater. Omnimax was a system that used a fish-eye lens to project 70-mm Imax images on a 67-foot, domed screen.
As a Space Camp counselor, I always got a kick out of it when kids who snarled about being dragged in “just to watch a movie” emerged from their SpaceDome experience a little dazed and weak in the knees.
When the stars aligned, Omnimax was a spectacular, immersive experience, but very few films were optimized to be projected on a dome. Regular theatrical releases, such as the “Star Wars” series, were badly distorted toward the edges of the screen, even in the best seats in the house. In less desirable spots, action sequences could become incomprehensible, if not genuinely, literally nauseating.
And so it was with dry eyes that Space Center leadership retired its astoundingly complex IMAX equipment. It was aging and would soon require replacement anyway. They also noted a “thinning schedule of new productions,” prompting “a different direction and thorough vetting of options.”
On Thursday, February 28, Huntsville saw what all that direction-changing and option-vetting had wrought.
The INTUITIVE Planetarium retains the Omnimax dome and adds state-of-the-art digital laser projection planetarium technology unlike any other in the southeast. A Forbes article on a similar dome refit in New Jersey may be found here.
For tech geeks, the new planetarium sounds impressive. The Intuitive planetarium employs five Evans and Sutherland’s planetarium systems using five projectors “blended together to create a seamless ultra-high-resolution image.” The Evans and Sutherland website says this is “the ideal solution” to replace film systems in an IMAX dome.
For a quick perspective on quality of the new system, Glyn Williams notes that IMAX 70mm film produces an an image roughly equivalent to a digital image of 8000 x 4000 picture elements — a total of 32 million pixels. The Digital IMAX found in many movie theaters uses a 2K digital projection system, not so different from the standard 1080P of domestic HD television, yielding a mere 2 million pixels. Wounded by the injustice of this disparity, Williams snarls, “You read that correctly. The thing they call ‘Digital IMAX’ contains 10 or 20 (times) less picture information than 70mm IMAX.” Not without good reason do film snobs disparage Digital IMAX as “LIEMAX.”
There is no such chicanery with the new planetarium, however. Each 8K projector produces about as many pixels as IMAX film, and five of them integrate into something truly spectacular. “It can do everything that IMAX can do and more,” assures Kevin Alspaugh, Astronomy Program Education Manager for the Space & Rocket Center.
When sitting close to the screen, as we movie geeks will, “Liemax” reveals its individual pixels every now and then, especially in words and letters, straight lines, etc. Astonishingly, even standing a foot or so from the planetarium’s new, seamless screen, there were no dots, no squares, no lines — nothing but clean, clear pictures. At such close range, I did notice a miniscule amount of jitter from one camera, and I asked the system’s operator about it. He assured me that this was due to heat stress in the projector after a long day of use, and a routine automatic realignment would fix it.
Initial offerings from the Intuitive Planetarium include “Destination Solar System,” including close encounters with the asteroid belt, and the moons of Jupiter and Saturn; “Explore,” beginning with the motive of human travel to Mars, moving on to the history of astronomy, and models of the solar system; and “Galileo: First Light,” a “cosmic voyage of discovery,” past and future, according to the website, examining how Galileo’s telescope “changed the way we think about the universe forever.”
A number of themed, after-hours events are planned for the planetarium as well, so keep an eye on the schedule here. Others have described their experience at the Intuitive Planetarium as jaw-dropping, and this is no overstatement.
I was skeptical, but after seeing it for myself, I can tell you there is no doubt — The Space & Rocket center has traded up. Welcome to the future of Huntsville’s venerable dome sweet dome.