Moscow Planetarium, Russia’s oldest, turns 89

Moscow Planetarium, Russia’s oldest, turns 89
The Moscow Planetarium — Russia’s oldest and one of the world’s largest — will turn 89 on 5 November. Read the history of this great planetarium in this article.

A clear starry sky might be one of the only things big city residents lack. A city’s bright lights obscure the view of stars, meteors, comets and other heavenly sights. However, there is a place in Moscow where the night sky always looks clear and velvety — the Moscow Planetarium.

Visitors can see other planets and lunar craters, learn about man’s place in the Universe and listen to lectures by prominent scientists under the domed projection screen, the largest in Europe (25 m in diameter and 1,000 sq m in area).

The planetarium receives up to 3,500 visitors a day and over a million visitors a year.

Opening year: “Each proletarian must see the planetarium”

The Moscow Planetarium opened in 1929. The unique building, designed by architects Mikhail Barshch and Mikhail Sinyavsky, has become a monument to the era of constructivism and pride for Soviet architecture.

Six years before that, on 21 October 1923, the Munich public was introduced to a “miracle from Jena” — the Model I planetarium projector whose spherical surface had 31 lens. Each was focused at a metallic plate with pinholes corresponding to the stars’ brightness and position visible to the naked eye. Rotating around a polar axis the projector showed the sky’s daily movement. However, the “miracle from Jena” had one drawback: the first projection planetarium was unable to show the effect of change in the observed latitudes. Engineer Walter Villiger corrected this drawback in the next version by dividing the star ball into two hemispheres and reducing the devices projecting the planets by half. Zeiss planetarium Mark II (1926) became a universal training tool. This was the device to be installed in Moscow.

The planetarium, which cost an ‘astronomical’ (at that time) amount of money – about 250,000 roubles, was the 13th in the world. Ten were in Germany, one in Vienna and one in Rome.

Then, in 1929, Vladimir Mayakovsky wrote: “Proletarian woman, proletarian man, come to the planetarium.”

1930s–1940s: A star theatre

The planetarium became a real star theatre. It was a place not only for lecturing and training but also for stage performances: plays like “Galileo,” “Giordano Bruno” and “Copernicus” were a great success.

In 1934–1938 it was a seat of the Stratosphere Committee that explored the upper layers of the atmosphere and dealt with the problems of reactive motion. The meetings were attended by Sergey Korolyov.

And of course the planetarium held astronomy circles where Academicians Viktor Ambartsumyan, Vladimir Kotelnikov, Alexander Mikhailov, Boris Petrov, Otto Schmidt and other scientists lectured. And Ivan Papanin, Ernst Krenkel, Tunguska Event explorer Leonid Kulik, Thor Heyerdahl and Jacques Mayol presented their travels.

The world’s first astronomic site with original astronomic instruments, models, rockets and a 5-inch refractor telescope in an observatory was opened on the planetarium grounds for the 800th anniversary of Moscow in 1947.

The all-Russian and international Olympiads for school children with its unique approach, stemmed from the annual astronomical Olympiad for students that was held there starting in 1947.

During WWII servicemen listened at planetarium to lectures intended for reconnaissance men and military pilots “Astronomy at War” and “Astronomy for Reconnaissance Men.” Lectures on astronomy were also given on-site at hospitals, military units and the city recruiting station. The planetarium operated throughout the war and only once was closed for two months.

1960s–1970s: Triumph of cosmonautics

The first cosmonauts, starting with Yuri Gagarin, studied there the starry sky until the cosmonauts training centre build its own planetarium.

The first manned flight into space evoked an enormous interest throughout the world in anything connected to space exploration, and so the popularity of the Moscow Planetarium grew. Attendance was the most stable in the world: from 800,000 to 1 million visitors a year.

The old Zeiss star ball installed back in 1929 was replaced by a new automatically controlled device in 1977.

1980s–1990s: Oblivion and dilapidation

In the 1980s the clock was set back for the Moscow Planetarium: the equipment was nearly obsolete, a state-of-the-art observatory had never been built, and powerful telescopes gathered dust in the observatory. Later in 1990 an observatory with a gradually wearing out Zeiss refractor telescope was opened but the building was almost in ruins.

The era of privatization nearly killed the planetarium: a vast site in the centre of Moscow was an extremely valuable property, but in 1994 it was closed for major repairs which lasted 17 years.

2010s: age of revival

The planetarium reopened in 2011. A new age began. After the opening ceremony held on June 12 the planetarium complex on Sadovaya-Kudrinskaya Street started to receive about 3,000 visitors a day. Older employees said they had never seen such interest even in the 1960s–1970s when fascination with cosmonautics was at its peak. Interest has not faded with time: attendance is growing – up to 3,500 guests a day.

Currently, the planetarium has a Great Stellar Hall, the Urania Museum, the Lunarium Interactive Museum, a sky park with two observatories, a 4D-cinema hall and the Small Star Hall.

The mixed-use complex has new systems with the latest equipment and unique teaching aids: a star sky projector, observatories, instruments and museum exhibits.

Shooting stars over Moscow: The Leonids meteor shower Vysotsky’s House and the Darwin Museum: What the Troika card can be used for

Historical exhibits in the Urania Museum take visitors to the past, a guided tour of the interactive museum presents the rules of nature and natural phenomena, and the Great Stellar Hall programme shows what it’s like to be a spaceship passenger and travel in time and space.

The planetarium is being prepared for its 90th anniversary next year and according to the staff a guest programme is already in the pipeline.

Meanwhile the planetarium continues to offer lectures, tours, concerts, presentations and culture related educational activities. Plans include development of a new service: a mobile application where users can learn about astronomy and the latest scientific news about space. The planetarium management says it should be completed by the end of the year.

“We think our most important achievement is the planetarium’s increased popularity as a cultural and educational facility,” commented Yulia Kim, Director of Marketing and Advertising. “This is due to the synergy of the entire team; we have introduced new activity formats, such as concerts, “live” lectures, theatrical shows and have launched educational programmes for children and adults. Today, the planetarium is not just a museum but a mixed-use complex where visitors can spend time productively and with pleasure for a day.”

“If there was only one place on the Earth where the stars could be seen, people would go there in droves to watch and admire the miracles of the sky,” said Lucius Annaeus Seneca in the 1st century AD and he was right.

Archive photos have been provided by courtesy of the Moscow Planetarium press service