Adler's new 'Welcome to the Universe' offers visitors a trip beyond the stars and planets

Adler Planetarium astronomer Mark SubbaRao considers it a high compliment when he hears visitors leaving the Adler's latest show "Welcome to the Universe" and saying it "gave them perspective."

SubbaRao, the show's creator, is the man who helped dream up the Adler's next adventure on screen in the Grainger Sky Theater, which ranks as the most technologically advanced theater in the world.

"I wanted 'Welcome to the Universe' to not only be educational and entertaining, but also to give people a better idea of how vast everything around us really is to open up minds and perceptions," he said.

In "Welcome to the Universe," audiences travel a billion light-years, and back, reclying in the theater's special seats for a feeling of flying through space, orbiting the Moon, zooming into a canyon on Mars, and soaring through the cosmic web where a million galaxies shower down and around. Then it's back to Earth, traveling faster than the speed of light for what the Adler calls "the most immersive space experience ever created."

The 25-minute narrated show experiences opened this month and runs daily through May 3.

"Welcome to the Universe" was created using real telescopic data and the best scientific imagery presented with a stunning level of realism, especially since The Grainger Sky Theater offers the largest single, seamless digital image in the world with an ultra high definition screen resolution of more than 8k-by-8k pixels. And the on-screen visuals expand beyond the traditional 180-degree dome and surround the visitor creating an immersive space experience.

"This new adventure gives us the opportunity to showcase what our state-of-the-art theater can do," said Adler President Paul Knappenberger Jr.

"The Grainger Sky Theater is not just a theater, it is a space simulation environment that has the ability to view the Universe from any time, place or distance. The Adler is the only place in the world where audiences can have this one-of-a-kind, experience."

The show begins with a survey of the night sky, with the city lights of Chicago clearly visible and then zooming out into space to observe the surface of the dynamic planet Earth.

And since the show is always narrated live each time, including the help of a laser pointer by the guide, the experience is always fresh, using current satellite data, as guests zoom back around several places on Earth that are experiencing dramatic environmental activity at the moment such as a forest fire, an active volcano or unique cloud formations.

The next leg of the journey is a tour of the rest of the solar system and beyond.

"Everyone depends on so many satellite powered devices today, so we made sure to include segments that show just how many satellites orbit the Earth to make our everyday life so much more informed, from predicting the weather with radar to the GPS used in cars and our cell phone communication," SubbaRao said.

He said the show is also intended to share the achievements and limitations humans have experienced in space exploration.

Along the way, there are stops at familiar exploration milestones, from the International Space Station where humans continue to explore and monitor the Earth; to the Moon, the farthest place humans have traveled; to Mars, the current focus of robotic exploration.

The program emphasizes how today's telescopes enable scientists to see billions of light-years away, and new visualizations based on the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, which is the largest map of the Universe, and how it allows the audience to see the newest, most accurate and realistic positioning of galaxies that exist as they travel deeper and deeper into space.

"Welcome to the Universe invites visitors to virtually fly into natural phenomena, such as the recent Red Sea volcano, and experience a close-up view of how climate change is affecting our planet," said SubbaRao said.

"Up-to-the-minute scientific data about everything from earthquakes to tsunamis will be examined as they occur and will be part of the show. Anything that happens in the Universe is a possible focus. Nothing is off limits."

He said the show will be updated weekly as the newest data becomes available.

SubbaRao, who also serves as the director of the Adler’s Space Visualization Lab, was a member and builder of the Sloan Digital Sky Survey.

He used data from that groundbreaking project to create the unique, breathtaking visualizations in "Welcome to the Universe."

SubbaRao said he is especially pleased with the the images of the Milky Way as they occupy the full screen and then fade away into the distance, an example of how the universe is so vast, even something as expansive as the Milky Way can be depicted as a small white dot among dozens of other galaxies, before spaning the entire Universe as a cosmic web of a million galaxies. 

"It's that moment of utter awe which overtakes the audience during this experience, as the show ends with what feels like a quick trip home to the familiar lights over Chicago and the Great Lakes," he said.


If you go

WHAT: 'Welcome to the Universe'

WHERE: Grainger Sky Theater at Adler Planetarium, 1300 South Lake Shore Dr., Chicago

WHEN: Now through May 3, with hours 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday to Friday and 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday with extended Memorial Weekend hours 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. May 25-28 and extended Summer Hours June 1 to Sept. 3 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. and closed Thanksgiving and Christmas Day.

HOW MUCH: The "Welcome to the Universe" Pass includes general admission, "Welcome to the Universe", plus an additional show and the Atwood Experience. Adults $28; Child (ages 3 to 11) $22. General admission (not including shows) is $12 for adults, $10 for seniors, and $8 for children ages 3 to 11. Chicago residents receive a $2 discount on adult admission packages and a $3 discount on child admission packages with proof of residency. Prices are subject to change. Parking is available in the lot adjacent to the Adler for $19.

FYI: The Adler Planetarium does not offer advance ticket sales. Show and exhibition tickets are sold on a first-come, first-served basis at the Adler box office. Visit adlerplanetarium.org or call (312) 922-STAR.