In previous shows since remaking its central domed theater, the Adler Planetarium has taken visitors into deep space, back to the celestial basics, and deep into the kind of awe the cosmos can inspire.
This time around, for the new theatrical presentation premiering Friday, the space museum explores the territory closer to our home planet.
"Destination Solar System" visits many of the key stopping points in our own region, from the Sun out to Saturn and beyond, and it is, as usual, a visual feast.
The best available imagery from space is brought into the Grainger Sky Theater, allowing viewers to dance, gingerly, across the surface of our star, swoop down toward a methane lake on Titan, a moon of Saturn, and duck one of the largest space rocks in the asteroid belt as it rolls by overhead. It is hard to overplay how spectacular such sights are, filling the spherical screen overhead.
What's also new about this show is that it aims to include, perhaps, a little younger audience than its predecessors, using a fictional, speculative story to target a whole-family audience.
Even while "Destination Solar System" shows off sophisticated, high-resolution imagery, rendered with brilliance by the Grainger's leading-edge projectors (8K capabilities, for the spec-heads out there; the theater opened in 2011), the storyline asks viewers to imagine they are in 2096, taking one of the then-common tours through our planetary neighborhood.
Even the waiting room outside the theater is done up as a terminal for "Space Express Tours," and the Adler show's sponsors, BMO Harris Bank and ComEd, have got into the fun by crafting ads from the future. In this waiting room, the actor in the show will mingle with the crowd beforehand, asking who has a robo-pet, say, or dealing with those reluctant to play along by wondering if they are "future deniers."
Written and executive produced, respectively, by Carin Greenberg and Christina Delfico, women with "Sesame Street" and other kid's TV credits, the show creates a kind of buddy adventure comedy between Jesse, the wide-eyed, first-time ship operator/ tour guide, and the voice of Max, the world-weary computer that runs the ship's systems.
For Max, think "2001's" Hal, but with a touch of sardonicism in place of the mean streak. Jesse, meanwhile, is played by one of six actors, most from the Chicago improv community, who trained for the role by taking astronomy classes from Adler scientific staff.
The show's conceit is a clever one, taking people who, visiting the Adler, are already in tourist mode and asking them to execute an imaginative leap forward into future sightseeing. They're making the human equivalent of the "Space Jump" technology the show fabricates to explain how the ship can get you all over the solar system and then back to Earth in the show's half-hour running time.
A goal of "Destination Solar System" was to craft a human story around things that the planetarium's visualization experts wanted to showcase.
"We said, 'You guys can do whatever you want, but we've got this great simulation of the formation of the solar system,'" said Mark SubbaRao, director of Adler's Space Visualization Laboratory.
Delfino, the producer, said she drew on her father's experience as an Apollo mission engineer, and "we did research on every planet and kind of found what was interesting to us. And then we thought about things that could go wrong in space."
Without giving too much away, there are moments of high drama on this mission.
"We wanted to create a satisfying emotional journey, as well as a physical journey through space," said Greenberg, the writer.
Wisely taking no bit of knowledge for granted, the show reiterates some of the space basics: A sunspot alone is wider than the Earth, for instance, and Saturn's rings are made up of ice chunks. But it also peppers in things that the casually interested might not know: Those rings are only about 30 feet thick. (A piece of paper of standard thickness but a half-mile wide accurately captures the rings' scale, SubbaRao said.)
The show joins the still running "Cosmic Wonder" as the second developed for the main theater during the tenure of Adler president Michelle Larson, who came to the institution last year with a reputation as a science educator.
A key part of her philosophy is to make science approachable, rather than daunting, and "Destination Solar System" fits the bill, she said.
"I'm most proud about how up-to-date and accurate the satellite imagery is," Larson said, "but we deliver that to you in a very engaging and immersive way."
There really hasn't been a blueprint for merging live theater, film techniques and high-level science — and doing so at a level that works for 8-year-olds and adult astronomy buffs alike.
But "Destination Solar System" pulls off this tricky feat and then returns you to the present time, and to a space museum where you can go touch an actual rock from Mars, the planet your imaginary spaceship just visited.
'Destination Solar System'
When: Opens Friday
Where: Adler Planetarium, 1300 S. Lake Shore Drive
Tickets: Included with All-Access pass, $29.95 for adults, $24.95 for children 3-11; 312-922-7827 or adlerplanetarium.org