From galactic roller coasters to Hubble images, the planetarium at Portland’s University of Southern Maine offers a universe of shows to ring in 2019. 

PORTLAND — About a decade ago, Edward Gleason got an idea: The University of Southern Maine’s Southworth Planetarium should join New Year’s Portland.

They’d run some of their newest and most popular shows, one right after the other, for the price of a single donation. They’d go until midnight! They’d cap it off by showing the ball drop in Times Square! 

“I put together the program and then went to the Chamber of Commerce . . . and said, ‘I have this New Year’s Planetarium, could we possibly incorporate that into the New Year’s Portland?’” said Gleason, the planetarium’s manager. “After a pregnant pause, the person said, ‘New Year’s Portland was cancelled about three years ago.’”

It was.

“Obviously, I didn’t do enough research,” Gleason said. “But I decided, well, I put the program together, we might as well run it this year.”

Ten years later, New Year’s Planetarium is still going strong.

And now with nearly a dozen shows in one night — thrill rides to other planets, bungee jumping in space, a history-of-asteroids show narrated by Star Trek’s George Takei — New Year’s Planetarium has become one of the most unique ways to ring in the new year in Maine. 

ROLLER COASTER RIDE

The Southworth Planetarium opened in 1970 thanks to a donation from Clara Southworth. About 17,000 people now visit it every year for shows, classes, lectures, concerts and other programs.

Maine is home to a handful of planetariums — including the Ladd Planetarium at Bates College in Lewiston — but only 62-seat Southworth offers an on-site New Year’s Eve extravaganza. 

It might be one of the few in the country. 

“Most folks, typically if they’re doing an event, may have one show or several shows but normally don’t have (Southworth’s) listing of shows,” said Shawn Laatsch, president of the International Planetarium Society and director of the University of Maine’s Emera Astronomy Center in Orono.

Southworth has skipped the New Year’s celebration only once — last year, when it was so dangerously cold outside that it seemed better for people to stay home. Otherwise, the show goes on.

Er, shows.

Eleven of them to be exact, plus the Times Square ball drop.

Like Gleason’s original plan, New Year’s Eve presentations continue to offer some of the most popular shows that debuted at the planetarium during the past year. For 2018, that includes “The Great Planet Adventures” — a solar system romp in which computer animated people show what it would be like to glide over the hydrocarbon lakes of Saturn’s largest moon, bungee jump into outer space and have all the other adventures you’ve never even dreamed about.

“It’s actually a beautiful visual program because we’re watching people snowmobiling on Pluto,” Gleason said.

The New Year’s Eve event this year will also feature some of the planetarium’s older, well-known shows, including the not-so-educational-but-tons-of-fun immersive thrill ride called “Space Park 360 Infinity.”

“It’s as though you’re going on roller coaster rides and scrambler rides on other planets,” Gleason said. “It’s very popular, but we don’t recommend it for people prone to motion sickness. It’s more convincing than you think it would be.”  

Pro tip: Nauseated? Close your eyes.

“The only thing moving is actually right up above you, unlike a real roller coaster where you’re actually moving as well,” Gleason said.

New Year’s Planetarium starts at 6 p.m., and each show lasts about 30 minutes. (There are two shows much earlier in the day if your evening is booked.) The early evening shows are designed to appeal to kids, so the planetarium’s littlest audience members don’t have to stay up past their bedtimes for “Space Park 360 Infinity” or “Moles: What’s Out There?” — an animated story about a young mole who wants to find out about the world above his burrow.

Later shows — like the 8:30 p.m. “Incoming!” (the George Takei-talks-asteroids show) or the 9 p.m. “Hubble Vision 2” with images from the Hubble Space Telescope — are more likely to appeal to astronomy-minded older kids, teens and adults. 

The evening wraps up with an 11:45 p.m. night sky tour, which projects a simulation of the night sky onto the dome. At midnight, the audience can sit cozily in their seats and watch the ball drop from Times Square on the full dome screen.

Ticket holders can see any or all of the shows, stay the whole night or pop in and out. Tickets typically costs $5 or more per show, but admission to New Year’s Planetarium is by donation only — $7 to $10 per person recommended; less is OK too.

“That way they can just enjoy some of our shows and welcome the new year with us,” Gleason said.

Reservations aren’t required, but they are encouraged.

If you miss New Year’s Planetarium, don’t worry. It turns out that 2019 will be, celestially, a very good year.

COMING SOON TO A SKY NEAR YOU

To be fair, Maine is always a great place to look at the stars.

A 2016 study found that 83 percent of the world’s population and more than 99 percent of America’s population live under light-polluted skies. That means seeing a sky full of stars is not so easy.

Except for you, you lucky Mainer.

“Lots of places in Maine you can go and see a beautifully dark sky,” Gleason said.

If you’re looking for the best spot, stick to the country and try northern Maine.

“Tourists who visit Maine in the summer will often tell me that they went up to Acadia National Park, they went to Baxter State Park, and they were flabbergasted at the sight of the night sky,” Gleason said. “They felt deprivation. They said, ‘When we go home, we realize how much we’re not seeing.’”

Between Jan. 20 and 21, there’ll be something special to see in that night sky: a total lunar eclipse.

You won’t have to be at the planetarium to watch the moon disappear, of course, but Southworth will be open for people who want to gather. The free program starts at 9:30 p.m. with information on lunar eclipses. Observation begins at 10:30 p.m.

“Provided the skies are clear, we’re going to watch a total lunar eclipse, which will be a beautiful event,” Gleason said.

On Nov. 11, Mainers will witness an even rarer event: the transit of Mercury across the sun. (It’ll look a lot like a little black dot traveling across the sun.)

The last time we saw Mercury cross the sun was in May of 2016. It won’t come again until 2032.

And then there are the planetarium’s plans for 2019: a laser festival in February, a program highlighting the mythology of Ireland in March, and Monday and Wednesday night classes throughout the year. 

Oh, and April Fool’s Day. Don’t forget that.

“You pay $3, $9 if you wear a costume, which is just silly,” Gleason said. “When people arrive, we roll the dice and that determines the show. It’s the only time of year people don’t know which show they’ll see.”

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Southworth Planetarium’s New Year’s Eve event will feature some of the planetarium’s older, well-known shows, including the not-so-educational-but-tons-of-fun immersive thrill ride called “Space Park 360 Infinity.” Think roller coastering among the stars. (Courtesy of Southworth Planetarium)

Southworth Planetarium’s New Year’s Eve event will feature some of the planetarium’s older, well-known shows, including the not-so-educational-but-tons-of-fun immersive thrill ride called “Space Park 360 Infinity.” Think roller coastering among the stars. (Courtesy of Southworth Planetarium)

This is an image from one of the 11 shows that will make up the New Year’s Eve extravaganza Dec. 31 at the Southworth Planetarium in Portland. (Courtesy of Southworth Planetarium)

New Year’s Planetarium at the Southworth Planetarium in Portland shows some of the most popular shows that debuted there during the past year. For 2018, that includes “The Great Planet Adventures,” a solar system romp in which computer animated people show what it would be like to glide over the hydrocarbon lakes of Saturn’s largest moon and bungee jump into outer space. (Courtesy of Southworth Planetarium)

This is an image from the Hubble Space Telescope. A 9 p.m. New Year’s Eve showing of “Hubble Vision 2” at the Southworth Planetarium in Portland will reveal more images from the telescope. (Courtesy of Southworth Planetarium)

This is an image of the Crab Nebula, a supernova remnant, taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. More Hubble images can be seen during New Year’s Planetarium at the Southworth Planetarium in Portland Dec. 31. (Courtesy of Southworth Planetarium)

Edward Gleason, manager of the Southworth Planetarium at the University of Southern Maine in Portland. (Courtesy of Southworth Planetarium)

A scene from inside the Southworth Planetarium on the campus of the University of Southern Maine in Portland. (Gregory Rec/Portland Press Herald)

The New Year’s Eve show offerings

6:10 p.m. The Great Planet Adventures!

6:35 p.m. Moles: What is Out There?

7:20 p.m. Space Park 360 Infinity!

8:00 p.m. Earthquake: Evidence of the Restless Planet

8:30 p.m. Incoming!

9:00 p.m. Hubble Vision 2

9:40 p.m. Season of Light

10:15 p.m. Journey to a Billion Suns

11:00 p.m. Time Space

11:30 p.m. Aurora Storm!

11:45 p.m. Night Sky Tour

11:55 p.m. Watch the ball drop at Times Square!

New Year’s Planetarium

What: An evening extravaganza of planetarium shows, plus the Times Square ball drop at midnight.

When: Monday, Dec. 31. Shows start at 6 p.m. but you can come and go as you please. (There are two shows earlier in the day for non-night owls.)

Where: Southworth Planetarium, 70 Falmouth St., Portland (the University of Southern Maine’s science building). Free parking is available at the Bedford Street parking garage.

Cost: Recommended donation is $7 to $10 a person, but no one will be turned away for paying less.

Know before you go: Reservations aren’t required, but they are recommended. Call 780-4249 for more information. 

FMI: Go to: usm.maine.edu/planet

Going north? There’s more!

What: Staff from the Northern Stars Planetarium in Fairfield and the Emera Astronomy Center in Orono will offer portable planetarium shows as part of the Bangor Public Library’s New Year’s Eve celebration.

Where: Bangor Public Library

When: Monday, Dec. 31 from 5 to 8 p.m.

FMI: Call the Bangor Public Library at 947-8336.


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