A Wedding Under The Planetarium Stars

Written by Ashley Zalta, HMNS Special Events Manager

The Burke Baker Planetarium at The Houston Museum of Natural Science has been recently renovated, and is now the premiere planetarium in the galaxy. It’s the first and only True8K™ planetarium, offering an unprecedented 50,000,000 pixels of beautiful brightness, resolution and brilliance. We wanted to show off its versatility as one of the perfect backdrops as you say your vows. Recently, we hosted a contest to be the first to get married in our updated planetarium, and below is our winner Katie’s story.


HMNS: Congratulations on winning the contest. We are very excited to share your special day with you. How did you hear about the wedding contest?
Katie: I receive emails from HMNS and follow the HMNS Facebook page. The first time I heard about the contest was through email, but I saw it again on the HMNS Facebook page a few days later.

HMNS: Do you remember your first time to the museum and/or planetarium?
Katie: It would have been as a child, actually attending a meeting of the spelunker’s society that my father was a member of rather than visiting the museum. The meetings were held in the basement of HMNS on weekday evenings, and I had full access to that floor during the time. While the meetings were being conducted, I would visit the basement exhibits to entertain myself. It was far different from what you see today. I remember there was a stuffed bear in one part, some kind of machine (perhaps a cotton gin?) in the center of the basement, and an exhibit on the periodic table of elements. The periodic table was my favorite part.

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HMNS: What is your favorite part/exhibit in the museum?
Katie: Aside from the Planetarium, my favorite things are the Cockrell Butterfly Center, the Cullen Hall of Gems and Minerals, and, of course, the gift shop!

HMNS: Have you seen a planetarium show since it reopened this March after renovations to become 8K?
Katie: I haven’t but I can’t wait to visit! The email about this contest was the first I’d heard about the upgrades.

HMNS: What is your favorite planetarium show?
Katie: I’ve seen several over the years, but my favorites explore the Big Bang Theory and the expansion of the universe. I tell people that I think my mind is too feeble to ever be able to fully grasp how the universe is continuing to expand, but I keep trying to understand it. As a teenager, I enjoyed the laser light shows set to Pink Floyd music.

HMNS: Have you ever been to an event at the museum?
Katie: I have been to a couple of weddings at the museum and some HMNS Mixers & Elixers events. Also, both of my children attended summer camp at HMNS in their younger years.

HMNS: Getting back to your special day, where will your reception be?
Katie: We will be serving a build-your-own street taco bar at El Big Bad downtown while a DJ plays 80’s dance tunes. We have put instructions on the reception card about how to get downtown via light rail from HMNS.

HMNS: How did you tell your fiancé you won?
Katie: I had been up since 6 am checking emails on June 1. I remembered from the rules that I only had 24 hours to respond and confirm acceptance of the prize if I won, and I didn’t want to miss it if I did. So when I got the email, I took a screenshot of it and texted it to him immediately. He responded with, “Was there any doubt?” Both he and my friends could not imagine that there would be anybody else out there more desirous of a Planetarium wedding than I was.

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HMNS: How does your fiancé feel about getting married at the museum?
Katie: He’s excited about it because it makes me happy. He hasn’t seen the potential visuals yet, though. I think it’s going to be beyond anything he could have possibly imagined.

HMNS: What types of things will you be showing in the planetarium for your ceremony?
Katie: This is a difficult question because there are so many possibilities! I am currently working with the museum to stage the show, but it will definitely include imagery from both outer space and places on Earth that are special to us. There might even be a bit of time travel involved, incorporating the slingshot around the sun that we all know from Star Trek IV.

HMNS: What do your children think about your getting married at the museum of natural science?
Katie: My 11-year-old son thinks it is super cool that I won the contest, and has been texting the video to people. My 18-year-old daughter responded with, “I thought you said that if you ever got married again, you would just go to a Justice of the Peace.” I told her that was before I knew that the Planetarium was an option!

HMNS: We hear you are wearing a blue dress for your wedding, how did you come to choose a blue dress?
Katie: I chose a blue dress before I knew I would be getting married at the Planetarium partially because I wanted something other than white for a second wedding, and partially because this particular color spoke to me as the most beautiful color I could find for my wedding. The fact that it is celestial blue makes it perfect not just for me, but for the wedding itself now.

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HMNS: Will you have any flowers or other décor?
Katie: The only flowers will be bouquets and boutonnieres. My décor will be the Planetarium visuals. I don’t think anything else is necessary.

HMNS: If someone asked you for your best advice on planning a wedding or event what would it be?
A successful event requires good memories. These are achieved through fun times and visuals that remain in people’s minds long after the event has ended. In talking to people involved in weddings and events, I have been told to always focus on the ceremony itself and the surroundings for both the ceremony and reception to achieve this visual memory, rather than spending money on small details that are quickly forgotten or possibly never noticed. I couldn’t be luckier to have won a ceremony venue that achieves this so easily!

If you would like to host at The Houston Museum of Natural Science please contact one of our event specialist at specialevents@hmns.org, or you can find more information at www.rentthemuseum.com.

Seeing Stars with James Wooten: Last Chance for Winter Constellations in April

Starmap April

Jupiter is now high in the east-southeast at dusk. It outshines all stars we ever see at night, so you can’t miss it. 

Mercury is visible just after sunset this month. Face west at twilight, and look low in the sky over the point where the sun sets. Mercury isn’t as brilliant as Venus or Jupiter, but it easily outshines the stars near it in the sky, so it’s not too hard to find. 

Mars is in the south-southwest at dawn. Noticeably reddish in tint, Mars continues to brighten each day until its opposition in May. It has now surpassed nearby Saturn in brightness.

Saturn is in the south-southwest at dawn, above the distinctive pattern of Scorpius, the scorpion. Mars remains close to Saturn this month.

Venus is becoming lost in the sun’s glare. Already, it doesn’t rise until deep into morning twilight, and Venus continues to approach the sun all month.

April is the last month to see the set of brilliant winter stars which now fill the western evening sky. Dazzling Orion is in the southwest at dusk. His three-starred belt is halfway between reddish Betelgeuse and bluish Rigel. Orion’s belt points rightward to Aldebaran in Taurus the Bull. To Orion’s upper left are the twin stars Castor and Pollux, marking the heads of Gemini, the Twins. You can find Sirius, the brightest star we ever see at night, by drawing a line from Orion’s belt towards the left. Forming a triangle with Sirius and Betelgeuse is Procyon, the Little Dog Star. 

Joining the winter stars are stars of spring rising in the east. Look for Leo, the Lion at dusk. Ursa Major, the Great Bear, which includes the Big Dipper, is high above the North Star on spring evenings. Extend the Big Dipper’s handle to ‘Arc to Arcturus’ and then ‘speed on to Spica’. There are fewer bright stars in this direction because of where the plane of our galaxy is in the sky. The area of sky between Gemini and Taurus and over Orion’s head is the galactic anticenter, which means that we face directly away from the galactic center when we look in this direction. Those bright winter stars setting in the west are the stars in our galactic arm, right behind the sun. On the other hand, if you look at the sky between Ursa Major, Leo, Virgo, and Bootes, you’re looking straight up out of the galactic plane, towards the galactic pole. There are fewer stars in this direction.

Moon Phases

Moon Phases in April 2016:

New: April 7, 6:24 a.m.

First Quarter: April 13, 10:59 p.m.

Full: April 22, 12:24 a.m.

Last Quarter: April 29 10:29 p.m.

On most clear Saturday nights at the George Observatory, you can hear me do live star tours on the observation deck with a green laser pointer. If you’re there, listen for my announcement. 

Clear Skies!

The Dome is Done! Planetarium renovation moving ahead right on schedule

The Burke Baker Planetarium and Friedkin Theater renovation project reached a milestone this week, and we at the museum are brimming with anticipation!

Okay. That’s an understatement. When we first heard the news, we all ran around screaming, “The dome is finished! The dome is finished!” That’s what really happened.

The dome is indeed complete, and it was no basic DIY endeavor. The Houston Museum of Natural Science’s Astronomy department budgeted an hour for the installation of each of the 197 panels installed. The old screen was removed and replaced first with support structures and next with the new screen, piece by piece, snugly tucked into place.

Dome Complete

In a 360-degree shot, the new domed screen over the Friedkin Theater in the Burke Baker Planetarium looks like a giant cue-ball.

It’s a painstaking process, according to Planetarium Producer Adam Barnes, the man behind our 360-degree custom-made films. He’s working on a time-lapse photo record of the installation that should be available on social media in the next couple of weeks. Once the old screen was gutted and recycled, Barnes explained, project crews shot 16 anchor bolts into the primary structure of the dome, then got to work on its “rib cage,” the support structure that holds the curved screen. The lowest-hanging portion was built first, then raised into place using come-alongs and chained to the anchor bolts at about 20 degrees. The front of the support structure is about two feet off of the ground at the front of the theater and about 20 feet in the back, giving the new dome its aesthetically pleasing tilt. Once the bottom rung was installed, the crew worked in a upward to the center of the dome, installing one rung at a time until the last circular piece was set in place at the top.


With the old screen recycled, the next step is unpacking the scaffolding!

“If you imagine a globe, and the lines of latitude and longitude it’s divided into, that’s what the support structure looks like,” Barnes said. “Each little square gets smaller and smaller and more curved until you get to the center, which is a circle.”

With the bones of the theater set, each white panel was raised and placed, carefully measured and marked for size, then taken back down for shaping. The panels ship separately, pre-painted to a specific color rated to 45 percent reflectivity, perforated to make installing the rivets easier, and oversized for the tightest fit possible. Once each panel was measured, it was clamped onto a curved workbench and whittled down into the perfect shape, then re-hung into its final position.


One by one, the panels are installed with careful measuring and alignment.

“Then they go on to the next panel,” Barnes said. “Each rivet is placed into one of the perforations, so you can’t see how it’s mounted. It’s flush, and they put a little bit of paint over the tiny metal rivet so it blends in very nicely.”

One by one, the panels were installed around and all the way to the top of the dome in much the same fashion as the supports underneath them. The result is a smooth, seamless screen specially designed for domed projections. While most flat-screen theaters have a reflectivity of between 60 and 70 percent (a mirror would reflect 100 percent of light projected onto it), the dome theater’s lower rating actually allows the image to become sharper, though it may not bounce as much light back into the eyes of viewers.


“For a dome, you’re shining projectors in front of you but also behind you,” Barnes said. “It’s like looking at an image on a nice, big TV projector screen in front of you and then opening the windows behind you so you can’t see the screen anymore. We call it cross-talk, when the light bouncing off the screen behind you ends up washing out the image in front of you.”

The interference of cross-talk is simply eliminated with a less-reflective screen, maximizing the power of each of the 50 million unique pixels pouring from the Evans & Sutherland Digistar 5 laser projection system. And with the tilt of the dome, guests receive a theater-like experience we’re sure they’ve never seen before.


Mark on your calendars the grand opening of the newly renovated Burke Baker Planetarium and Friedkin Theater March 11. Don’t miss the show! Be the first to see the brightest planetarium in the world in action!

Author’s note: All photos by Adam Barnes.

The cutting-edge returns to the Burke Baker Planetarium, where astronauts once trained

Think back to the technology of the late 1980s: corded phones, boom boxes, cathode color TVs. In this era, it’s tough to imagine how anyone achieved the remarkable feat of traveling to space and orbiting the Earth without WiFi or contemporary computers. But Americans did it, and we made history!

Alan Shepard

Alan Shepard was the second person and first American to travel into space. He reached a height of 116 statute miles in 1961.

Now imagine what it must have been like being in space, orbiting the Earth fast enough to circle all of humanity in 90 minutes. It’s cold, it’s dark, and it’s strange. You’re already disoriented in this zero-gravity, off-world environment. Not much room for error in your flimsy aluminum ship, and not much of a view.


When you look out the window, you never know whether you’ll see something familiar or some other constellation only visible to Australia. Even easily-recognizable constellations like Ursa Major can be tough to identify when they’re upside-down and you can only see through a tiny porthole. And what if your navigation equipment went dark? How would you find your way?

Navigating and orienting the space shuttle back in the ‘80s and early ‘90s was no easy feat, but with the help of HMNS VP of Astronomy and Physical Sciences Dr. Carolyn Sumners and the Burke Baker Planetarium, astronauts could practice finding their way under strange skies. As a partner with NASA, Sumners’s three-hour stellar orienteering course was required learning for every candidate astronaut aspiring to touch space.


“The big problem was we had to limit their view to small regions, and they had to be able to find stars in areas you cannot see in Houston,” Sumners said. “We would show them a patch of sky and ask, ‘What do you recognize?’”

The original training program began with Sumners using a Spitz projector, a bulky analog contraption set on cross-braced arms that required the exchange of “star balls” for different views of the sky. The Challenger crew trained using this equipment in ’86, Sumners said. When the Evans & Sutherland Digistar 1 digital projector was installed in ’88, lessons were much easier. (Incidentally, Evans & Sutherland also developed NASA flight simulators used by astronauts at the Johnson Space Center.)


Sumners worked closely with every crew that went into space in the ‘80s and ‘90s, working on their orienteering skills. Her class was so popular and effective, crews would occasionally drop by to brush up or re-test, or just to stop in and say hello (and made an impression when they did).

“The Apollo crew would pop in,” Sumners said. “Many of them were ex-military, so they had the buzz-cut look to them. A lot of gawking went on by the staff.”

With the advent of more reliable digital technology, crews don’t train with Sumners anymore, but partnership with NASA continues, as does her business ties to Evans & Sutherland. The newly-renovated planetarium will feature the world’s first True 8K digital projection system, the Digistar 5, and it was developed by E&S! It’s the clearest, brightest picture of space anywhere on Earth, with software that will allow audiences to see the stars not only in unfamiliar orientations near to our home planet, but from anywhere in the known universe.

ISS aurora

Coupling this projection technology with images from NASA, Sumners expects to bring audiences experiences like the view of the Aurora Borealis from a fish-eye camera mounted on hull of the International Space Station, fed directly through the Cloud.

“They should work beautifully together,” Sumners said.

Astronauts may no longer need orienteering courses, but it’s likely the clarity of this cutting-edge technology will blow even those who have been to space out of this world.