Story and Photography By Carolyn Bowers

Thanks to the generosity of the Sunset Beach community, local businesses, Brunswick County and individual supporters Ingram Planetarium’s theater shows are presented with a very sophisticated, high-definition digital system — the Spitz SciDome HD sky theater digital projection system — that gives them an amazing depth of color and clarity. According to Mark Jankowski, planetarium director, when they installed the system in 2009, Ingram was the third planetarium in the world to have this state-of-the-art equipment. Now they are one of 12.

Ingram Planetarium’s theater has a 40-foot diameter dome, large plush seats and minimal distracting aisle lighting. The shows are a patented “ImmersaVision®,” 360-degree, surround-sound experience. Each theater production is followed by a live star show, narrated by either Jankowski or Ed Ovsenik, planetarium educator, who use a laser beam to point out the exact position of the planets, stars and constellations in real time.

The planetarium owns six sky theater shows and 18 laser shows, including some designed to appeal to younger audiences, a few for adults, and some for all ages. But one can never predict who will like what show the best. Seven-year-old Caleb Jones’s parents took him to see “Zula Patrol Under the Weather,” which is billed as “best suited for younger audiences.” It is an animation film about a team of cartoon characters from planet Zula who use their spacecraft to invade earth and get around the solar system.

When Caleb was asked about the show, he said, “It was good. It was a movie about aliens.” But when asked his favorite part, with a little prompting from his mother, he said, “When the movie was over, they showed the planets and constellations, and the space station, not NASA, the other one. That’s the part I liked best.”

One of the shows that seems to be a real crowd pleaser is “Seven Wonders.” It begins by taking the viewers back in time to experience the seven ancient wonders of the world. And then it transports the audience through space to see the seven cosmic wonders, and finally returns them to planet earth.

Another show called “Astronaut” first points out the glory and excitement of being an astronaut, and then focuses on the rigorous training involved. This film is introduced by former NASA engineer and current Southport resident Jim Harrington.

At six o’clock each evening, there is always one of their spectacular music laser shows. The ever-popular Christmas show will run for most of November and December. For a listing of current programs and dates, call the planetarium at (910) 575-0033.

Be sure to plan your visit to the planetarium well before show time so you can spend some time in the Paul Dennis Science Hall, where a number of great hands-on exhibits demonstrate scientific or mathematical concepts. Kids can play without realizing that they are also learning about astronomy, science and spatial relationships.

Earlier this year, the Shepherd family visited Ingram Planetarium from Winston Salem, N.C. Ralph, age 11, was intrigued by the “Magnetic Circus.” This exhibit demonstrates the power and the elusiveness of magnetism. The object is to manipulate a rod in such a way as to set up a magnetic field, which will result in one of the balls hitting a bell. Ralph gave it his best shot for about 20 minutes but never did hear the gong. However, he did figure out the principle behind the project, and he was elated to have come as close as he did to making the bell ring. “I think it’s kind of interesting the way the two magnetic sides connect,” Ralph said.

His little sister, Maria, was fascinated by the “Nebula Ball,” which is a glass ball with rays of light inside. An explanation above the ball describes how and why it works. But Maria preferred to figure that out on her own. She used deductive reasoning well beyond her years to conclude that “it is the heat of the hand that moves the light rays because if you blow on it, nothing happens.” Then she refined her theory when she realized that she didn’t need to actually touch the glass ball to have the light rays follow her hand. She needed only to place her hand above the rays to influence their direction. Clearly Maria knows a thing or two about the scientific method.

Ralph and Maria teamed up to test their skills on the “Water Play” game. This exhibit instructs the players to shoot a stream of water at a target, which causes two astronauts to go up. The speed at which the astronauts rise correlates with the size of the arc of the water. The scientific principle printed on the sign above the game may have been a bit beyond these two kids, but the relationship between water and force was definitely not lost on them.

A large model plane demonstrates Bernoulli’s lift-off principle by allowing the viewer to press a choice of buttons with varying speeds to control the wind speed over the plane’s wings. Air moving faster over the wing creates lift, causing the plane to fly. According to the sign above the exhibit, the same principle would apply to race cars. The faster the air moves over the shape of the car, the more the car has a tendency to lift off the track.

Next comes the “Pipes of Pan.” This is a series of eight pipes of varying lengths. The visitor is instructed to put his ear at the end of each pipe and listen to the sound. The pipes trap the sound that is present in the room and channel it to your ear. The smaller the pipe, the higher the pitch of the sound. According to Greek mythology, Pan was a god who was half man and half goat. In an effort to please the gods, he fashioned an instrument made out of reeds. This exhibit mirrors that instrument. No word on whether or not Pan succeeded in impressing the gods with it.

At the end of their visit, nearly everyone heads for the Galaxy Gift Shop, where what they have learned can be reinforced through books, games, puzzles, posters, model kits and various souvenirs. Many of the items are surprisingly affordable.

Ingram Planetarium opened in May of 2002, almost exactly 11 years after the opening of its sister facility, the Museum of Coastal Carolina in Ocean Isle Beach. Both were founded by Stuart Ingram, a World War II pilot who used the planets and constellations to chart his way. When he retired, Ingram spent many evenings pointing out the various stars in the sky for his family and friends, and this eventually led to his founding a planetarium in the hope that others might share his enthusiasm for the wonders of the universe.

Upcoming events at the planetarium include a special program and a birthday party from 7 to 8:30 p.m. on December 3 for all those who have birthdays under the newly acknowledged 13th sign of the Zodiac, Ophiuchus. Folks with a birthday during Ophiuchus’s reign, which is November 29 to December 17, will be honored.

Check out the planetarium’s website to get the schedule for shows and other special events at .

Both the Museum of Coastal Carolina and the Ingram Planetarium are now on their winter schedule, which means they are open only on Fridays and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. The planetarium is located at 7625 High Market Street in Sunset Beach. The museum is at 21 E. Second Street in Ocean Isle Beach.