Wits Planetarium to undergo major transformation in bid to establish fully digital dome

The completed Wits Planetarium opened its doors on October 12, 1960. Supplied image.

The completed Wits Planetarium opened its doors on October 12, 1960. Supplied image.

Published Jun 4, 2022


Johannesburg - The Wits Planetarium has been a site of wonder and discovery for many children and adults alike and now the iconic building is set for a facelift.

From July 1, the Planetarium will undergo a major transformation as part of the vision to establish a fully digital dome. The refurbishment project will be completed in 2023. But it’s not only the refurbishments that are causing a buzz. The Planetarium’s Star Projector, which served more than a million curious minds and is part of many childhood memories, will be decommissioned at the end of June and is delivering its last shows this month.

Chair in Radio Astronomy at the Wits School of Physics, Professor Roger Deane, said the next century requires modern digital equipment and the university is continuing on the bold vision of its forebears.

“A trip to the Planetarium gazing at the stars, transports minds to our galaxies and what lies beyond our universe. Through the decades, this journey into the stars has been made possible by one marvellous machine. The public is invited to the finale by this nearly 100-year-old historic technological marvel before the curtain falls,” he said.

The Star Projector has served in Germany and in South Africa and its last performance is in the year that Wits University celebrates its 100th anniversary.

The dream to have a planetarium began in 1956, when the Festival Committee, tasked with organising the 70th anniversary of the founding of the City of Johannesburg, decided that it would be fitting to mark the occasion by raising the funds needed to buy and house a Zeiss Planetarium, fitted with a projector by the Zeiss manufacturers in Germany. However, time was not on their side as it was soon discovered that it would not be possible to obtain a new instrument within a period of less than a year. The alternative would be to try and acquire an existing instrument.

Through support from the manufacturers and after prolonged negotiation, the Festival Committee succeeded in convincing the City Council of Hamburg to sell their instrument, the Star Projector, which had been in use in that city since 1930.

The completed Wits Planetarium opened its doors on October 12, 1960. Supplied image.

Part of the conditions stated that the projector must be fully modernised in the Zeiss factory before coming to Johannesburg. The Star Projector made its way to South Africa in time to take its place as one of the star attractions at the celebrations. The Johannesburg City Council, thereafter, sold the instrument to Wits University for use in the formal instruction of students and as a public amenity for the citizens.

Plans for the Wits Planetarium were drawn in 1958, and building commenced in 1959. On October 12, 1960, the first full-sized planetarium in Africa, and the second in the southern hemisphere, opened its doors to the public.

“The instantly recognisable dome of the Planetarium is an impressive sight and an important landmark of the city. The Wits Planetarium serves as a symbol of scholarship and cosmic wonder to many members of the public. Be part of the old and the new by visiting now and the transformed in 2023,” said Deane.

The upgrade has been almost two years in the making and involved astronomers and digital artists.

“The new digital dome is going to be quite something and we are super excited. The Planetarium is so embedded in Joburg society and communities. And the 91-year-old Star Projector is just an incredible machine. Now we just have to find the best home for it,” he said.

The completed Wits Planetarium opened its doors on October 12, 1960. Supplied image.

The Wits Planetarium is the largest of its kind in sub-Saharan Africa and one few situated on a university campus, which makes it even more special.

Supervisor at the Planetarium, Constant Volschenk, who has been doing the shows for the last 25 years, said after all the many years, the amazement never ends.

“I have seen kids refusing to go in because of the giant ant in the foyer and others just in absolute amazement of the Star Projector. Without saying too much, the changes are going to make the Planetarium so much better and we will be able to do so much more. What I can say is that it’s going to be more like a cinema experience,” he said.

The shows commenced yesterday and will end on June 25. Only 50 seats are available per show. Public bookings via Webtickets.

The Saturday Star