Europe’s newest planetarium opens with a bang


A unique visitor centre at the European Southern Observatory HQ in Germany should inspire a new generation of astronomers. Gabriella Bernardi reports.


The new Supernova Centre at the ESO headquarters in Germany.
The new Supernova Centre at the ESO headquarters in Germany.
Gabriella Bernardi

The European Southern Observatory (ESO) has opened a planetarium and visitor centre next to its headquarters, in the small German town of Garching, close to Munich.

The facility is called “Supernova”, a reference to the shape of the structure. It was designed by architectural firm Bernhardt+Partner and suggests a binary system of two stars orbiting one another, prior to the explosive transformation of one into a supernova.

One of the two “stars” is represented by the 14-metre-wide dome of the planetarium. Capable of seating more than 100 visitors, the facility houses a modern digital projection system that can display 360 degree images. All content is provided in both English and German.

The second star is called “The Void”. It is actually an empty space, above which spans an impressive 15-metre-high starry ceiling, featuring the 22 constellations of the southern hemisphere.

As happens in real space, however, empty does not mean useless. The walls of this part of the Supernova centre are covered by a 360-degree mapping of the Milky Way, inviting closer inspection by visitors. The Void will also be used to host temporary exhibitions.

The two parts of the new centre are linked together by a 284-metre-long double spiral ramp, full of interactive exhibits constituting a permanent installation called The Living Universe.

Visitors are invited to start from one side, climb to the top and enjoy a virtual visit to the ESO’s telescopes in the Atacama Desert, Chile, after which a second ramp leads to other attractions, including a relativistic bike and a galaxy collider.

The idea for the centre grew from a collaboration between the ESO and the Heidelberg Institute for Theoretical Studies (HITS), a private, non-profit research institute founded by the German entrepreneur Klaus Tschira and the Klaus Tschira Foundation.

“Astronomy was a large passion of our founder,” says Beate Spiegel, managing director of the foundation.

“Through this project, he wanted to share his fascination with the public. The ESO Supernova is the last building that he could personally initiate before he passed away in 2015.”

The particular combination of philanthropy and passion in Tschira, who was also a physicist, might explain the unique “open-source” nature of the planetarium.

The facility opened to the public in late April. However, all the material contained within it has also been made available free online, including 15 full-length planetarium shows, and more than 400 music tracks. It can all be found here.

Gabriella bernardi.jpg?ixlib=rails 2.1
Gabriella Bernardi is a science journalist and author based in Turin, Italy. Her two most recent books are Giovanni Domenico Cassini: A Modern Astronomer in the 17th Century (Springer, 2017), and The Unforgotten Sisters: Female Astronomers and Scientists before Caroline Herschel (Springer, 2016).
  1. http://www.eso.org/public/
  2. http://supernova.eso.org
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