It was a grim day for astronomy in the capital when Madame Tussauds revamped the London Planetarium as a Stardome, shifting their spotlight to the banal cult of celebrity. But now, at last, there's a proper interstellar alternative. The Royal Greenwich Observatory has just opened a brand new £15 million extension, the centrepiece of which is an architecturally striking planetarium. Which opened yesterday. And what do you know, it's damned excellent.
The new planetarium has been built beneath a granite courtyard, so that only its "dome" is visible from above [photo]. It's not actually dome-shaped at all, but a slanted truncated cone whose shape has been mathematically designed to uniquely match its location [photo]. The northern edge slants upwards at 51½° (the precise latitude of Greenwich), the southern edge points towards the zenith [photo], and the top has been sliced off parallel to the equator. This elliptical face is mirrored to reflect clouds scudding across the sky [photo], while the remainder of the cone's surface has been welded together out of 250 individual pieces of bronze (which get hot to the touch on sunny summer days). It is quite frankly, gorgeous, even if very few tourists yesterday afternoon were stopping to give it a second look.
Access to the planetarium is across the courtyard, through the ornate Victorian South Building. This splendid four-winged building has been given a new lease of life by the restoration project, and now houses the Observatory's astronomicalgalleries. The exhibits within are cutting-edge museum fare, designed to appeal to children with even the shortest attention span, but still with enough factual meat to satisfy the more scientific mind. You can get your hands on a 4½ million year old meteorite, or roll dice to decide the fate of star formation, or guide an electronic telescope across the heavens, or just marvel at the mysteries of the universe. All of the visual presentations (and there are several) include sign language interpretation - this is an impressively inclusive experience. Meanwhile the top floor of the building has been given over to school parties, while downstairs there's a cafe and a shop (because there's always a cafe and a shop).
Entrance to the Peter Harrison Planetarium is on the lower level, and a ticket will set you back £6. You might expect Mr Harrison to be a famous astronomer but no, he's just the kindly philanthropist who donated £3 million to the project (and conveniently gets his name splashed across the building in perpetuity). You can read a bit about his selfless life while you're waiting to go in, should you be interested. The Queen, meanwhile, merely merits a small plaque saying that she popped along on Tuesday to officially open everything.
The planetarium seats 120 people in comfy recliners, but aim for the rear rows for the best upward view. If you ever visited the London Planetarium in Baker Street you'll know what to expect - a curved overhead screen upon which the mysteries of the night sky are projected. What you won't be used to are stunning 21st century visual effects, as the 20 minute show transports you around the universe from the Sun's core to swirling black holes. The projected light show tells the story of the stars, from their birth within clusters of cloudy nebulae to their eventual implosion and death. I was very pleased by the wholly scientific presentation - there's no dumbing down here - and images are lifted from real observation data wherever possible. There's a fair amount of constellation spotting too, because that's what planetariums are for, although sadly there was no planet-hopping in this first set of performances. Maybe later.
As the night sky slowly brightened and the lights came back on, there was a ripple of spontaneous applause from an appreciative audience. Perhaps this was just a first-day reaction, but I like to think you'll be just as impressed when you visit. Do come (maybe once half term's over and the place calms down a little). A world-famous world-class attraction just got even better.
Planetarium admission details(performances hourly)
Weller Astronomy Galleries(admission free)