Rio Tinto Alcan Planetarium goes to infinity … and beyond

A full moon rises over the Chaos Theatre at the Rio Tinto Alcan Planetarium. (Photo by Hayley Juhl)
The Infinius S opto-mechanical star projector in the Milky Way Theatre of the Rio Tinto Alcan Planetarium. (Photo by Hayley Juhl)

The Infinius S opto-mechanical star projector in the Milky Way Theatre of the Rio Tinto Alcan Planetarium. (Photo by Hayley Juhl)

Forty-seven years ago this month, the Dow Planetarium opened to the public. It closed its doors in October 2011 and the future of the heritage site is still being debated although the city hopes it will become a hub of the new Quartier de l’innovation downtown. The just-opened Rio Tinto Alcan Planetarium assumes the Dow’s mantle, becoming Montreal’s newest science museum.

It is part of Space for Life complex around the Olympic Stadium, joining the Biodome, Botanical Garden and Insectarium.

An aluminum company is a fitting benefactor, as the metal is made of stardust. Infinitely recyclable, it’s an apt choice for a building seeking platinum LEED certification (it would be the only platinum-certified green building in Quebec; there are 22 in Canada). The planetarium’s architectural design is as cutting edge as the technology within and impresses even before you step inside. From the aluminum-clad towers meant to evoke telescopes pointed skyward to the sci-fi-ish landscaping and green roof, it is a visually stunning building.

The interior is no less exciting. The entrance and lobby are light and airy but reduces gradually as patrons make their way toward the two darkened theatres. A specialized system of windows and shades are used for ventilation and to reduce dependence on air conditioning. A weather station monitors precipitation and prevents the shutters from opening when it’s raining.

There are two theatres: the Chaos Theatre is cloaked in the exterior’s aluminum facing while the Milky Way Theatre’s wood covering is reminiscent of the surface of Jupiter or Saturn.

Visitors begin in the Chaos Theatre with Continuum. Conceived to pique curiosity, it is a fantastical 23-minute romp through the universe. Guests remove their shoes and sit either in a beanbag on the reflective floor or in one of the Adirondack chairs ringing the room. A full moon floats overhead, trees rustle and the sounds of frogs and crickets fill the space. The peace soon gives way to rain, lightning and finally the majestic chaos of outer space.

The Milky Way Theatre’s 40-minute presentation is a technologically updated version of a standard planetarium show. The Infinium S opto-mechanical star projector is so advanced it can accurately render the most detailed images. Visitors are encouraged to bring binoculars to better immerse themselves in the experience. Any version of the night sky can be shown—past, present, future or from another planet entirely. Content changes to reflect the seasonal sky.

The permanent display Exo rounds out the Planetarium experience. Full of touchscreens and interactive activities, it engages participants in a search for life outside our planet.

If there are any drawbacks it would be that there is nothing for children under 7 and those with reduced mobility might have issues, as there are a few tight corners.

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