The unknown Planetarium: Unlocking the Star House’s secrets

November 9

The Moscow Planetarium is one of the city’s most mesmerising places. Visitors can travel among the stars and nebulae and study the Universe. Today, this is considered the best technically equipped popular science and astronomy centre in the world.

Each year, its experts develop new guided tours and educational programmes both for children and adults. The Planetarium receives new exhibits, upgrades its technology and serves as the venue for lectures given by outstanding scientists. It has a regular and an interactive museum, two observatories, an open astronomical platform, a 4D cinema and two star halls. No other science/educational centre can boast such diversity.

The Planetarium opened on 5 November 1929 and it was a major event for Moscow. At that time, the world only had 12 planetariums, including ten in Germany, one in Italy and another in Austria. The Star House is marking its 91st birthday today.

However, many visitors are not aware of its entire “biography.” Discover interesting and surprising facts about one of the capital’s places linked with the Final Frontier from

Courtesy of the Moscow Planetarium’s press service

“Proletarian man and proletarian woman, come to the Planetarium”

Poet Vladimir Mayakovsky and writer Konstantin Paustovsky visited the Planetarium right after it opened. Mayakovsky was so impressed that he wrote the following verse: “Proletarian man and proletarian woman, come to the Planetarium.”

In turn, Paustovsky did not like the dark sky and noted that it had no twinkling stars. He thus inspired Konstantin Shistovsky, the Planetarium’s first director, to create a sky with twinkling stars.

German engineers from the Karl Zeiss factory said this was impossible. However, the Planetarium’s specialists found a simple solution to this seemingly difficult problem. They made a wire frame and attached tiny shapes to it. This was then placed on a 1,000-watt lamp illuminating the stars, and an electric motor rotated it around the lamp, blotting out the light. This created a twinkling illusion.

The Twinkling Stars machine and a mechanic named Lebedev. Courtesy of the Moscow Planetarium’s press service

By 1934, the stars were twinkling on the Planetarium’s dome which also displayed clouds and Aurorae Polaris, as well as August meteor showers, solar eclipses and Konstantin Tsiolkovsky’s space rocket hurtling through the dark void. After each session, the Sun rose little by little to the music by Soviet composer Reinhold Gliere who had written it especially for the Planetarium. No other such place in the world could offer such dazzling special effects until the late 1950s. The Star House ceased to be an optical facility and became a dome-shaped theatre reproducing the sky in its entire magnificence.

Today, modern projection technologies, part of the Universarium M9 star projector, create a real sky. Each star has its own optical fibre with a variable luminescence.

The Universarium M9 machine. Courtesy of the Moscow Planetarium’s press service

Star theatre

The Moscow Planetarium that implements research and artistic projects has accommodated three theatres since 1929. The first, prewar, theatre staged performances about Giordano Bruno, Nicolaus Copernicus and Galileo Galilei involving professional performers. 

Courtesy of the Moscow Planetarium’s press service

The Planetary Variety and Miniatures Theatre opened in 1954 and mostly employed the Star House workers who staged performances using their own scripts. The theatre closed in the 1970s.

The Fantastic Theatre opened in 1989 and closed in 1994. It had young performers and stage directors searching for new forms of scenic art.

The Planetarium and the hard war years

The Moscow Planetarium continued to work even during the grim war years. Apart from operating the Star Hall, its workers toured hospitals, military units and air raid wardens’ headquarters, lecturing on astronomy at these places.

Planetarium staff members N. V. Lipnitsky and S. S. Dergachev designed a mobile star sky projector suitable for any indoor facility. The projector consisted of two hemispheres, with a lamp in between. The light passed through tiny holes matching the location of various stars and was reflected onto the ceiling. These devices acted as improvised planetariums at, for example, some hospitals.

The Planetarium also played a strategic role during the war, with its huge silvery dome serving as a good reference point for pilots. Consequently, it was decided not to camouflage the building. The dome also guided Luftwaffe pilots to their targets and survived the war only because German commanders forbade their subordinates to bomb the building.

An anti-aircraft artillery battery in 1941. Courtesy of the Moscow Planetarium’s press service

The astronomical platform’s secret exhibit

In 1947, the Moscow Planetarium received the world’s first astronomical platform, now called the Sky Park. Mikhail Nabokov, who wrote the first Soviet-era textbook on astronomy for schoolchildren, and Moscow astronomers took an active part in building it.

The Sky Park has an interesting exhibit called the Earth-Moon model. The Earth is clearly visible, but it takes quite some time to find the Moon. To see the Moon, one has to glance up at the roof of a nearby building where a small hemisphere is visible on a brick chimney. The hemisphere denoting the Moon was placed there after the astronomical platform opened. At that time, the Earth’s model remained on the ground, rather than on the roof of the Planetarium, its current location.

The Moon’s hemisphere. Courtesy of the Moscow Planetarium’s press service

The model of the Moon is five million times smaller than the original, and the distance between both objects is five million times shorter than the distance between the real objects. The distance between the Earth and the Moon equals 60 terrestrial radiuses; and the scale model’s objects are located 77 metres apart. After reconstruction, the model of the Earth acquired slightly different dimensions and the distance between it and the model of the Moon also changed. However, people can still imagine how the Earth and the Moon are located in outer space.

The astronomical platform. Courtesy of the Moscow Planetarium’s press service

Future cosmonauts training

Few people know that the conquest of space also began at the Planetarium. Between 1960 and 1975, Soviet cosmonauts mastered astronavigation there, as part of their overall training. Yury Gagarin, Gherman Titov, Andriyan Nikolayev, Valentina Tereshkova and other cosmonauts visited the Star Hall.

Courtesy of the Moscow Planetarium’s press service

Leading national astronomers read lectures for future cosmonauts, and planetarium staff members B. A. Maximachev and K. A. Portsevsky taught them how to quickly and accurately find navigation stars anytime in both celestial hemispheres.

The Planetarium makes it possible to simultaneously watch the Northern and Southern celestial hemispheres, to solve navigational problems at a glance and therefore became indispensable for space studies.

Its imposing dome is 25 metres in diameter, and the artificial sky has an area of 1,000 square metres. These huge dimensions made it possible to better understand the stars’ location.

Courtesy of the Moscow Planetarium’s press service

Full-dome film studio

Earlier, it was possible to watch theatre productions at the Planetarium. Today, people are watching films there. A popular science film was produced especially for the Star Sky at the Planetarium’s own 3D graphics studio.

“The process of creating full-dome films resembles ordinary film production involving a screenwriter, a director, a science editor, a 3D artist, a designer and a composer,” Faina Rublyova, the Planetarium’s Science Director, said.

According to Ms Rublyova, the films should meet the Planetarium’s subject matter. They should reflect modern perceptions of the Universe, contain authentic scientific information and have high visualisation levels. Consequently, leading astronomers act as film consultants.

The Star House’s repertoire has several films of its own, including The Inhabited Moon and The Multi-Colour Universe. The former shows the surface of the Earth’s attendant satellite and the moonlit sky. It tells about grandiose plans to explore the Moon and shows futuristic spacecraft, due to fly there.

The Large Star Hall. Courtesy of the Moscow Planetarium’s press service

The Multi-Colour Universe discusses multi-wave astronomy that studies the sky in the infrared, ultraviolet, X-ray and gamma ray bands. Each band became a footstep into the unknown, followed by the discovery of new objects and phenomena in the world of stars and galaxies. Audiences are able to see a world filled with invisible radiation, enter a nebula, discover a multitude of new stars and meet with the most powerful space objects.

The film received the 6th All-Russian Award, For Loyalty to Science, and a second-category certificate in the Best 2019 Popular Science Project category.

Tying the knot under the stars

Romantic couples are attracted by the ethereal space atmosphere making it possible to discover unknown worlds. Many of them would like to get married there, under the starry sky.

Since 2019, the Moscow Planetarium is listed among the most unusual marriage locations and is the venue of over 100 weddings annually.

The Star House workers are doing their best to make these events truly memorable. For example, the newlyweds can admire the brightly-lit Venus, Aurora Polaris or a meteor shower. Couples can get married at the Moscow Planetarium by registering on the government services website or by prior appointment at the Dmitrovsky District Registry Office.


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