Review by Zach Long
If all goes as planned, Virgin Galactic will begin offering commercial flights into space later this year. For those unable to wait (or without $250,000 to spare) the Adler Planetarium’s latest space visualization may be the closest you’ll come to breaking away from these Earthly bounds. Transporting viewers to the year 2096, “Destination Solar System” imagines a future where Space Express Tours offers interstellar travel to some of the most interesting locales in outer space.
The experience begins in the Clark Family Welcome Gallery, which has been covered in translucent white material backed by pulsing lights and recast as a spaceport. While waiting for their tour to begin, patrons can view a pre-flight briefing and take note of futuristic advertisements for the show’s sponsors, BMO Harris Bank and ComEd (we can only imagine how much they’ll jack up electricity prices on Mars). An actor portraying Jesse, the enthusiastic yet inexperienced tour guide, leads crowds into the state-of-the-art Granger Sky Theater, which harnesses 20 high-definition projectors to show video across a dome that is 70 feet in diameter.
The Adler Planetarium has shown plenty of breathtaking visualizations of the cosmos in the past, but it’s never put on a show quite like this one. What differentiates “Destination Solar System” from past productions is the presence of Jesse, a galactic tour guide who is portrayed by a rotating cast of six local improvisational actors, providing live narration over the course of the half-hour show. Jesse is joined by MAX, a highly-intelligent onboard computer that blends the authoritative drawl of HAL 9000 with the know-it-all tendencies of C-3PO. Together, the pair infuse the proceedings with a narrative that is geared towards younger viewers but isn't too distracting for adults.
Of course, the visuals are the star of the show, taking viewers from a launch tube on Earth to a stunning representation of the solar system. The immersive nature of the projection and surround sound system make expansive images of the surface Mars or the rings of Saturn all the more awe-inspiring. Viewers are also treated to some unconventional locales, including a stop at Vesta, the second largest asteroid in the solar system, and a journey through the hazy atmosphere of Saturn’s moon Titan. Many of the show’s visualizations incorporate brand new data, including a representation of the surface of the sun that was generated by way of a supercomputer simulation conducted at the University of Illinois.
The Adler Planetarium has been working on this show for the past two years with the intention of making it a long-running attraction that can be modified over time. The premiere iteration succeeds on several levels, taking advantage of spectacular visuals while using its live performance elements to forge a more personal connection with audiences. Whether you’re just learning about other planets or trying to remember what you studied back in grade school, “Destination Solar System” is an entertaining and informative crash course on the corner of space that we call home.
"Destination Solar System" shows at 11:30am, 1:30pm and 3:30pm daily through June 20.