The Raritan Valley Community College Planetarium is taking a blast into the future, and bringing thousands along for the ride.
In 2014, the 100-seat dome saw some 40,000 visitors, a figure that has been steadily increasing since the planetarium opened in the college’s East Building in May 1990.
The planetarium differs from many other theaters in that a variety of shows are offered throughout the year, instead of one generic star show; these shows are geared towards small children, families and adults. The planetarium also caters annually to 14,000 school children who view one of 15 educational school programs.
“We are unique because we are one of the few planetariums in the country where we produce our own laser shows and do a variety of shows all year as we cycle through them,” said William McClain, planetarium associate.
The 40-minute shows feature topics such as planets, black holes, universal explosions, children’s shows about stars and planets, the search for aliens, the sun and sun spots and evolution of species.
McClain said that by viewing a star show, visitors can get a better understanding of the universe, learn about a specific topic, see what’s currently in the sky, or find out what a specific bright star in the sky is.
After the evening shows, the 3M Observatory is also open. This observatory, added in the fall of 2013, allows visitors to check out interesting stars, planets and galaxies currently visible in the sky.
The planetarium also produces its own hour-long laser shows, which McClain said can also be enjoyable for someone not necessarily interested in space. Afternoon laser shows are recommended for those older than six and evenings laser shows are recommended for those older than 12.
McClain said, “If you just want to see some cool laser lights and listen to classic rock, you can come specifically for those, or just to have a night out.”
Shows with popular topics, those at the end of the season, those featuring promotions, special events and childrens’ shows tend to sell out, so McClain recommends that prospective visitors call 908-231-8805 to make a reservation.
Otherwise, those who just show up for the Saturday 3 p.m., 4 p.m., 7 p.m. or 8 p.m. shows from October through May will probably get a seat. One show costs $8 per person and two shows in one day cost $14 per person.
“We are getting popular,” said McClain. “People are finding out about us.”
The local planetarium also became the first digital theater in 2008 in the state, allowing it to bring visitors to other galaxies without any special effects. Many other local theaters have also since gone digital or adapted a hybrid system.
“We can go through a database of stars seamlessly into a pre-recorded show and we don’t have to worry about slides jamming or tape measures acting flaky,” McClain said.
The use of the digital theater also brings about higher sound quality, since there is no need for fans running throughout the Planetarium dome.
“Video quality is also better, since we can customize it with the constellations and it’s also easier to show things in the past or the future,” he added. “We can show the moon rising, eclipses and the skies.”
RARITAN VALLEY COMMUNITY COLLEGE PLANETARIUM
Where: 118 Lamington Rd., Branchburg
Cost: $8 for one show or $14 for two shows in one day
Dates: Every Saturday at 3 p.m., 4 p.m., 7 p.m. and 8 p.m. Arrive 20 to 30 minutes early
Contact: Call 908-231-8805 to make a reservation or click here for more information