As the world becomes brighter and brighter, the Mannheim Planetarium brings the starry sky back to the city. It provides exciting insights into earthly polar nights and distant galaxies and into the past and future of our universe. Scientific director Dr Mathias Jäger and his team design their own shows and programmes with a great deal of enthusiasm for astronomy firing up their supercomputers.
The room fills with colour. Purple, blue and pink colours swirl across the dome and surround the audience. Bright white dots sparkle in between. A few at first, then more and more, everywhere. They pulsate or flash and shoot gaseous beams into the mist of colour. This explosion is so colourful that it looks like pure fantasy. But there is a lot of science behind it, because it actually illustrates the birth of stars in a molecular cloud. 9 million years in just a few minutes. It is a simulation created by scientists in the United States.
It is also thanks to Dr Mathias Jäger, among others, that this simulation lights up the dome of the Mannheim Planetarium. The technical and scientific director of the planetarium saw it on a NASA website. “I was completely fascinated. No one had ever shown the birth of stars in such detail before.” At the time, he was in the process of creating a new programme with his team: Galaxis. Reise durch die Milchstraße (Galaxy. A journey through the Milky Way). It was his first in-house production for the Mannheim Planetarium. They immediately agreed: “We need the simulation for our programme.”
Mathias got on the phone and called the scientists in charge. They agreed to adapt the simulation so that the team in Mannheim could use it for their purpose. “The research group fired up their supercomputer for this project, one of the largest computers in the world,” says Mathias with a huge smile on his face. The simulation was then turned into a fulldome film in Mannheim filling every millimetre of the hemispherical dome. “We agreed with the scientists that we could use the film exclusively for six months, but then release it so that all planetariums in the world could use this sequence.”
The Mannheim Planetarium, located at Europaplatz…
has been bringing visitors closer to the universe since 1984.
The “Universarium” star projector brings the sky to earth to achieve this.
The hall can take around 300 spectators…
… witnessing the birth of stars,
… exploring polar night with James the penguin and Vladimir the polar bear and...
… enjoying Pink Floyd songs.
Mathias and his team also produce their own shows.
Galaxis. Reise durch die Milchstraße has been running in Mannheim since 2022, as one of several astronomical programmes at the planetarium. There are also scientific lectures, shows with music by Queen or Pink Floyd, space-filling radio plays with The Three Investigators and children’s programmes in which the Olchis explain the universe. “2023 was an extremely successful year for us,” says Mathias. 145,000 visitors came to the planetarium—a lot more than during the Covid-19 pandemic, of course, but also significantly more than before it.
We convey the latest knowledge about our universe at this planetarium
Dr. Mathias Jäger
“The children’s shows in particular are usually sold out,” he explains. That makes him particularly happy. He has just said goodbye to a primary school class and is therefore still wearing his colourful astronomy hoodie. “Children at this age are so enthusiastic. It’s really great fun. And they ask great questions: Where does the universe end, how long will the Earth be around and how do we know all this?” Such questions always make him happy. “I then explain to them that, although we convey the latest knowledge about our universe at this planetarium, there may be completely new scientific findings in a few years’ time.”
The Zeiss company brought the sky to earth for the first time in 1923. At the time, the public celebrated the planetarium projector as the “miracle of Jena”. Just four years later, the locals of Mannheim could also marvel at this miracle—in the world’s first municipal planetarium. The stars had already played a major role in Mannheim long before, during the Baroque period. Prince-elector Carl had an observatory built within walking distance of the Palace in 1772, which was known worldwide thanks to the pioneering work of the court astronomer Christian Mayer in the 18th century (LINK to Starkenburg observatory). It is one of the town’s most important attractions, visited by celebrities such as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Thomas Jefferson on their journeys through the region. The planetarium attracted a multitude of visitors. The building in the Unterer Luisenpark gardens used to have over 500 seats at the time—more than the current building.
The former planetarium was badly damaged during the second world war and was finally torn down in 1953. Mathias explains that “in the post-war period, the city had better things to do” than taking care of it. “But there were early endeavours to build a new planetarium.” A citizens’ initiative led by physicist Heinz Haber campaigned for a new building—which then opened in December 1984. Dr Christian Theis has been the director of the planetarium since 2010. He has constantly driven forward the modernisation of its technological equipment. The planetarium has been equipped with 360-degree projection technology for fulldome films since 2015—surrounding the visitors almost completely and giving them the feeling of being directly immersed in deep space.
A great deal of technology is required to create this unique feeling. Two rooms in the planetarium are reserved exclusively for computers. One room comprises the computers for the star projector and the nine projectors required for the fulldome system, while the other room is for the computers that the production team need. Mathias leads us through the circular corridor behind the planetarium’s domed hall to the offices. “Here is the magic office,” he announces with a grand gesture. Multimedia producer Thomas Niemann and his colleague Gaby Langer, who has been working at the planetarium since 1985, are sitting in the small room. “She is our veteran,” says Mathias and laughs. Both are sitting in front of computers that are connected to several screens each. This is where the magic is created: the shows.
One monitor shows a distorted, circular image of icebergs. It is an image from the new Polaris children’s show—adapted to the curves of the dome. “You get an eye for the distortions over time,” Thomas explains. And if this eye doesn’t help, virtual reality glasses are used, which show the film in three dimensions, similar to the projection in the dome hall. Wearing it Thomas sits in his office like a gamer who moves around in a virtual game world. The planetarium even has its own sound studio. “It’s great when the voice actors record the film right here on site, especially for in-house productions,” Mathias says. He has even commissioned a composer for the Galaxis programme. “Music plays an enormously important role, especially when it comes to giving visitors a break between the sequences with all the scientific information that they are listening to, so they can simply enjoy the impressive images and the music for once.”
Mathias has been at the Mannheim Planetarium since 2021. He comes from Austria, where he studied astrophysics in Vienna. He came here for the first time for his doctorate, originally to the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy and the Haus der Astronomie institution in Heidelberg. “Work there was super exciting. But I also realised that science wasn’t necessarily my thing.” However, he didn’t want to leave astronomy and therefore switched to science communication. This led him to the European Southern Observatory in Munich first. He then spent four years as press spokesman for the Hubble Space Telescope for the European Space Agency (ESA). His good contacts with scientists all over the world originate from this time.
“It was a great time. Hubble has been showing us how wonderfully colourful and exciting our universe is for over 30 years now.” However, working with the space telescope follows very rigid processes. “I wanted to work more creatively and have more freedom,” Mathias recalls. When the position of scientific director at the Mannheim Planetarium was advertised, he contacted director Christian Theis, with whom he had previously worked—and got the job shortly afterwards. And here he does what he loves best: infecting as many visitors as possible with the astronomy bug—a world he thinks is just miraculous.
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