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Reach for the stars

Douglas Blane goes on an awe-inspiring tour of the cosmos at Glasgow's new planetarium.

There is no such thing as empty space. Way out in the darkness and biting cold between the stars a few lonely atoms wander. Tugged by gravity and blown by gossamer winds, these atoms cluster into clouds that condense in time and grow immensely hot until, in a searing blaze of light, a new star is born.

Each twinkling pinpoint on the darkened dome of Glasgow Science Centre's newly-opened Space Theatre is the image of a star. Some are old and have grown dim and faded. Others are bright and young and full of energy.

Most of the stars in the night sky, explains staff scientist Mario Di Maggio to his rapt audience, cannot be seen from our light-polluted cities.

He touches a button. The orange glow of streetlights fades and the constellations appear clear and sharp in the blackness, looking as they do on a frosty night in the mountains.

There is a gasp from the youngsters. "You can spot so many things in the sky without a telescope," he tells them.

The red dot from his laser takes them on a guided tour of the heavens, calling at Jupiter, Saturn and Mars.

"Long ago people knew the sky far better than we do and they saw wonderful pictures in it and told each other stories about them." A touch of the button overlays the classic shapes of Cygnus, Pegasus, Gemini, Orion and others on the star-patterns.

The great band of the Milky Way is the mingled light from billions of stars in our galaxy, while sprinkles of fairy dust in the dark are all the unaided eye can see of other galaxies.

After the tour of the stars, an animated film on the search for extra-terrestrial life is projected on to the dome. Images of barren moonscapes and the sulphurous surface of Venus stay in the mind.

Judging by the long queues, the new theatre, with "the best planetarium projector in Britain", is proving popular. Mr Di Maggio's development plans include working with the centre's education team to develop more curriculum-focused live programmes and special-purpose animated films.

"We plan to develop a programme around visiting Mars to celebrate its close approach to Earth next year. Our digital media team can produce shows as good as anything available commercially."

On the second floor of the Science Mall that team is putting another sophisticated piece of equipment through its paces. When the Virtual Science Theatre opens to schools on March 22 it will immerse children in an experience previously available only to wealthy oil companies, car manufacturers and pharmaceutical designers.

Children's eyes and brains will be beguiled by the multimillion-pound Reality Monster. They will be transported above the Earth to the clanging corridors of a space station and along the blood vessels of the human body.

A recent international conference at the centre, says digital media manager Phil Lavery, featured sessions on the Virtual Science Network, a global initiative aimed at making the huge datasets used in these immersive environments more widely available for educational use.

"We are putting together three educational shows: an introduction to the power of the machine; an exploration of the Space Station with options to study on-board scientific experiments and living conditions; and a medical show on genetics and mapping the brain."

Ruth Ruthven, a former headteacher and now primary specialist on the centre's education team, believes that unlike the planetarium, where links to the curriculum can readily be developed, the Virtual Science Theatre is such a novel facility that its full educational potential will emerge gradually, as teachers and pupils become familiar with its startling capabilities. "We shall be inviting groups of teachers to come and watch the shows, explore the virtual science, and talk to us about the tremendous educational possibilities," she says.

Glasgow Space Centre, www.gsc.org.ukShows in the Space Theatre begin every hour. The Virtual Science Theatre will open on March 22, 11am-4.30pm daily. Entry to the Science Mall, including the Space and Virtual Science theatres, is free to individual teachers. School parties should book on 0141 420 5010, e-mail admin@gsc.org.uk

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