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Made-in-Utah star shows play worldwide

Gravitational waves discovery prompts Clark Planetarium team to update 2 features

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We’re better known outside of the Salt Lake City market than we are here. – Lindsie Smith, associate director of Clark Planetarium.

SALT LAKE CITY — When the astronomy and physics worlds were rocked earlier this year by the discovery of gravitational waves rippling through space from two colliding black holes, a team of video producers at Clark Planetarium went into action.

Their mission: to update one of their most popular star shows playing at planetariums around the world.

"Gravitational waves are a whole new way of looking at the universe," said Ron Proctor, manager of the creative department at Clark Planetarium. "It's like seeing in a whole new color spectrum."

People who attend the spectacular star shows in Clark's domed theater may not realize it, but they're part of a worldwide audience for the made-in-Utah productions. The planetarium derives a significant portion of its revenue by writing and producing star shows and selling them all over the globe.

In the world of planetarium shows, Clark is a heavyweight player.

"We're better known outside of the Salt Lake City market than we are here," said Lindsie Smith, associate director of Clark Planetarium.

Just like Hollywood, Clark's creative team is into remakes and sequels. Writers and video craftsmen are currently working on updates of their two most popular shows, "Black Holes" and their all-time best-seller, "The Secret of the Cardboard Rocket." At the same time, they're creating a brand-new show called "What If?"

The updating of "Black Holes" was particularly urgent because the discovery of gravitational waves made news all over the world and is considered to be one of the most important astronomical findings in many years. The incredibly faint waves were predicted 100 years ago by Albert Einstein but went undetected until the billion-dollar LIGO observatory was activated late last year.

Utah-born physicist Kip Thorne is one of three scientists who are widely predicted to win a Nobel Prize for their decadeslong effort to get LIGO in operation.

The international marketing of star shows was also started decades ago by Clark Planetarium's predecessor, Hansen Planetarium.

"From the 1970s to now, we've produced about two dozen shows," Smith said. "We're reaching over 32 countries in 17 languages. So think of the ripple effects of educational shows — home-grown here in Salt Lake — educating audiences around the world."

So many Utah-made star shows have been sold that it's a well-known brand to people working in the field of planetariums and science museums.

Proctor recalls an incident at a recent national planetarium conference. "Someone who was introducing the keynote speaker, someone I did not even know, said, 'You know, Hansen Planetarium is the most famous planetarium in the world,'" Proctor said. "We are the continuation of Hansen Planetarium."

All those star-show sales translate into a significant chunk of Clark Planetarium's budget. "Per year we bring in about $350,000 in revenue," Smith said.

In writing and designing the shows, there's a delicate balance between fun and learning.

"We do have to walk the line between being creative and entertaining and being scientifically accurate," Proctor said.

"It's so amazing to have that awe factor, that wow factor," Smith said, "and to know that we're spreading that joy and awe of studying the cosmos."

The revised version of "Black Holes" is expected to begin playing during the Thanksgiving holiday season, right after a "grand unveiling" of entirely new exhibits at Clark Planetarium.

Email: hollenhorst@deseretnews.com