Think planetariums are just for third grade field trips or die-hard fans of Contact? Think again, because the Rock Creek Park Planetarium offers you a tour of your local constellations at the only planetarium in our country’s entire National Park System.
There are a handful of planetariums in Washington, DC, the most notable being that in the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum. But seeing as how Air and Space is America’s second-most visited museum, avoid the busloads of crowds and hit this more hidden treasure. In addition to the Air and Space Museum, there are two other planetariums in the DC-metro area that offer public shows: the endangered Arlington County Government Planetarium near the Courthouse Metro, and the Montgomery College Planetarium.
The Rock Creek Park Planetarium is self-described as an “astronomy laboratory.” While less heavy on the astrophysics than some planetariums, some pretty solid science and space posters litter the walls, and a mock-up of our solar system greats those waiting in line before the show begins. Public presentations are Wednesdays at 4pm and weekends at 1pm and 4pm, with the latter being the most advanced (see full schedule here). The humble shows tend to be very DC-centric, in that you learn to observe the night sky in our area, rather than hi-tech pilgrimages to far-away places like Alpha Centauri and black holes like Air and Space purports to offer. Expect to learn how to identify common constellations such as Orion, Taurus, and Cassiopeia, and tricks for navigation like finding the North Star, the Pleiades, and the different planets that rise every season. When the projection switches from a view of the DC night sky looks today to how it looked 50-100 years ago, you sure will be depressed by the effects light pollution!
One of the joys of Rock Creek’s Planetarium is its idiosyncratic shows led by rangers who just ooze the delight of science. The ranger in charge when I visited was extremely excited that most of the attendees were girls, a fact that was not lost on this XX chromosome science fair finalist. Every ranger’s presentation is assisted by Seymour the projector, who is cute and finicky. And, all shows are heavy on the public participation.
Not only did I learn about critical astronomical navigation skills while at the Rock Creek Park Planetarium, I also learned pretty neat facts. For example, did you know that the Milky Way revolves around our galaxy’s black hole, and that the whole revolution takes 250 million years? I didn’t think you did. And that’s the kind of key factoid you’ll take away from your visit to this stellar (haha?) planetarium.
To visit: 5200 Glover Road NW, Washington, DC 20015. (202) 895-6070. Tickets are free and can be picked up a half-hour before the show. Accessible by the E2 and E3 buses from Friendship Heights and Fort Totten, but will be a bit of a walk. A car is your quickest navigational gizmo.