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Highlights of the Adler Planetarium: A Chicago Family Day Trip

Updated on November 20, 2014

Learning About the Stars and Planets in Chicago

The Adler Planetarium in Chicago is the oldest in the United States, opening in 1930. The museum does a great job explaining the solar system, the planets, space exploration and the history of astronomy, and is well worth a visit when you are in Chicago.

Located right on Lake Michigan, the building was named a national historic landmark in 1987.

If you go plan on spending two to three hours, more if you want to see all the movies available. Here are some highlights of our recent visit.

All photos are by us unless otherwise stated. The picture here is of the Atwood Sphere, which you can read about below.

Earth Adler Planetarium
Earth Adler Planetarium

Visiting the Solar System and Learning About the Planets

A bright airy section of the planetarium's upper level is given over to an exploratiion of our solar system, including displays of all the planets and an explanation of their relative sizes and distances apart. Each planet gets some attention, and there's even an explanation of why Pluto was demoted a few years ago.

The exhibit also has a 2.36-kilogram meteorite that landed in Park Forest, Illinois, in 2003. It's a very solid piece of rock that probably would have killed someone if it landed on him.

There's also an interactive Crater Maker, where you shoot a blast of air onto a clay surface to simulate a meteor hitting a planet. The display shows how land has been changed by these impacts. I don't know how much the little kids playing with it understood but they looked like they had fun doing it!

Also in this area is a 6-foot-diameter motorized globe of the Earth (see photo). It enables you to get a real feel for the planet as it turns.

Next to this exhibit is the Planet Explorers, a play area for little children that we didn't go in because ours are too old. It's quite large and looked pretty busy.

The Best Tour Book We Used During Our Visit to Chicago

The Atwood Sphere: A Walk-In Look at the Stars Above Chicago - An Historic Planetarium 100 Years Old!

Atwood Sphere
Atwood Sphere

This was the highlight of our visit. The Atwood Sphere is a walk-in planetarium that opened in 1913 to give Chicagoans more information about the stars above the city.

The sphere is 17 feet in diameter and has 692 holes drilled through its metal shell, which has a thickness of only 1/64 inch. The large hollow ball rotates on a pair of rollers while visitors sit in a stationary bench inside (and it was pretty cramped with eight people!).

Light shining through the holes show you where the stars are above Chicago throughout the four seasons of the year, and the guide was kind enough to help us with the names of the constellations that are visible. Of course, back in 1913 you could see many more stars from the city. Today, light pollution makes it harder to discern the bodies above.

Because only a few people can go in at a time, and each tour is 10 minutes or so, there is usually a bit of a line. Also, the sphere may carry an extra charge depending on what level ticket you bought. But I think it is definitely worth it!

See the Atwood Sphere in Action

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Apollo Mission Adler Planetarium
Apollo Mission Adler Planetarium

Ride Along on a Journey to the Stars

Follow Jim Lovell's Career as an Astronaut

The Shoot for The Moon exhibit tells the story of America's exploration of the moon by focusing on the career of astronaut Jim Lovell Jr., who was the first person to fly into space four times. The exhibit starts with his childhood and his education, ddoing a good job of explaining to young visitors that these astronauts were highly trained.

The display really picks up though when it talks about his various space missions. The discussion of his Gemini XII trip in 1966 is highlighted by the actual spacecraft, and it always amazes me how small these vehicles were. The exhibit contains a number of other artifacts and memorabilia, including Lovell's Apollo 8 space jacket and blown-up front pages of newspapers that reported on the space exploration of the times.

Toward the end of the area the exhibit becomes more general in discussing the future of space exploration and includes part of a moon rock collected on July 30, 1971.

Tom Hanks as Jim Lovell in Apollo 13

Jim Lovell is probably best known for his command of Apollo 13, in which a malfunction caused the space mission to be scrapped and the astronauts were barely able to make it back to Earth.

The event became the hit movie ''Apollo 13," starring Tom Hanks as Jim Lovell.

It's a really good movie and well worth seeing.

Pretending to Jump on the Moon - Try the Lunar Leap

Adler Planetarium
Adler Planetarium

Here is a photo of the younger half of Goldenrulecomics trying the lunar leap, an interactive display intended to give you an idea of what it would feel like to jump on the moon's surface. You lie on your back and push off, and you really do feel like you are sailing high into the sky. Yes, even adults are allowed to try to I had fun doing it.

There's also a scale that provides your equivalent weight on the moon, where I would be about 36 pounds. Not so heavy after all!

Aliens Adler Planetarium
Aliens Adler Planetarium

Alien Planets, Movies and a History of Astronomy

The Rest of the Planetarium

The lower lever contains several exhibits that may be a bit too scientific for the youngest visitors. There's a discussion of concepts like dark matter, cosmic acceleration, exo-planets and whether we are alone in the universe (see photo) and while these are clearly explained I would think that they may go over the heads of pre-teenagers.

The largest part of this floor is dedicated to the history of astronomy, starting with a display of how sundials work then going into the Muslim scholars' contributions to the field in the 1200s. There was a lot of information in this section that I didn't know, and looking at the astrolabes and armillary spheres was fascinating. These instruments were really pieces of art.

The area also explored some of the myths of ancient people and the ways they viewed the stars, touching on areas of the world including Cambodia and Mexico.

Another section is given over to the history of the telescope, including cutaway displays that show how the instruments work. Some of the telescopes exhibited here are very large, including one from 1864 called the Dearborn.

The planetarium also offers a number of movies and shows that explore different aspects of space. We watched "Undiscovered Worlds," which focused on the recent discovery of planets outside our Solar System and whether there may be life in other parts of the universe.

Have You Been to the Adler Planetarium?

Adler Planetarium
Adler Planetarium

Have You Been to the Adler Planetarium?

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      AlleyCatLane 3 years ago

      I would love to visit this place. Your review makes it sound so interesting and fun. Maybe one day I'll get to Chicago and see it for myself.