In the centre of a primary school's hall is a large silver dome. Screams of excitement, soothing music and the voice of a child emanate from it and after 20 minutes or so, a group of children emerges, visibly elated, via a long silver entrail. Stardome is an inflatable travelling planetarium owned and run by ex-teacher Dennis Ashton, who is also an astronomer at the Star Centre in Sheffield. Over the last three years the dome has visited about 280 venues, mostly schools.
At Moorfield primary school in Newport, Shropshire, Dennis Ashton was giving nine shows. Before each group enters the dome, he tells them: "Don't lean on the dome, it'll wobble the sky and we'll get space sick". "This is the time to break a rule: don't put your hand up, I can't see in the dark. Call out. "
He also points out the address of the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California where they can write for free pictures. The address is given in a pack which is provided with the visit. It contains lists of recommended resources, information sheets and activities.
The group troops in by the silver entrail or "the giant's bottom", as Dennis Ashton delicately puts it. Once inside, he passes round a piece of a meteorite, so everyone can "feel something from another world". Then he begins the show with slides of the sun and the planets, explaining the role of gravity and the difference between rocky, gas and ice planets. On December 12 there is likely to be a meteor shower which, weather permitting, they could watch, he says.
Dennis Ashton has a nice line in showmanship, combining humour with dramatic flourishes. Venus was "a planet from hell" where the air would squash you like a human pancake, a clap of the hands illustrates the point.
The children are treated to the spectacle of the planetarium doing what planetarium's do so well: the dome is filled with star patterns and Greek constellations.
Because the class has been studying planets as part of key stage 2 science, they can name many of them. Andromeda and her rescuer Perseus are indicated; star signs are pointed out, along with individual stars such as Betelgeux and Capella.
The class has done so well in naming the heavenly bodies that they "win a trip to Florida", and blue sky swirls overhead as they head off "in a rocket". The show ends with a lively question time, which the children didn't want to end, but which does eventually as they all filed out through the giant's bottom to make way for the next class.
The Stardome presentations are themed:"a tour of the planets" (for primary schools); "life cycle of the stars"; "Big Bang and big crunch?", (both for secondary schools). They cost Pounds 150 for a full day; Pounds 80 half day; Pounds 80 evenings. Tel: 0114 230 8769. For information on other mobile planetariums around the country, contact Dennis Ashton at the Star Centre (above)