Our Burning Planet


Wits Planetarium enters the digital era with a multimillion-rand relaunch

Wits Planetarium enters the digital era with a multimillion-rand relaunch
Wits University and Anglo American have partnered to fund the refurbishment, expansion and digitalisation of the 62-year-old Johannesburg Planetarium into a new, future-savvy, multidisciplinary research, training and science engagement events hub. (Photo: Wits University)

Wits University and Anglo American have joined forces to create a world-class facility that will usher the Wits Planetarium into the digital era. The planetarium is under construction and has been launched as the Wits Anglo American Digital Dome.

After more than 60 years of being the largest in sub-Saharan Africa, the Planetarium at Wits University is rebranding and extending its facilities. It is relaunching as the Wits Anglo American Digital Dome, and will see the planetarium taken in a new, digital direction.

The Digital Dome – officially launched on Monday evening during a formal event attended by scholars, miners and official guests – will boast a research, training and science engagement facility, and offer a 360-degree visual experience. The launch comes as Wits celebrates its centenary. 

“It is fitting, in our centenary year, that we continue this vision to build our city, our country, our continent, together for the benefit of our planet,” Professor Zeblon Vilakazi, Wits vice-chancellor, said at the launch event. 

The project will upgrade the 62-year-old Wits Planetarium into a modern Digital Dome, including the conversion of the foyer and ambulatory ring into a science and technology Exploratorium. (Photo: Wits University)

Stages one and two of the Wits Anglo American Digital Dome will be completed in 2023 and open to the public in 2024.

“The real value of this building lies beyond its infrastructure … it will be the largest of its kind in sub-Saharan Africa … the only one that includes a multidisciplinary facility and production abilities in its engine room.”  

Described in a statement by Professor Roger Deane, director of the Wits Centre for Astrophysics and the SKA Chair in Radio Astronomy at Wits University, as a “high-tech Imax-like theatre, just better”, the Dome will be used for edutainment purposes and for the understanding of big data. 

Inside the final show, the Wits Planetarium showcased on its now-retired Star Projector during the institution’s centenary celebrations in September. (Photo: Wits University)

The Wits Planetarium has been a site of wonder and discovery for many children and adults alike since its opening in 1960. (Photo: Wits University)

The refurbishment of the Planetarium follows the retirement earlier this year of the 100-year-old Zeiss Star Projector that served in the Planetarium for 62 years. (Photo: Wits University)

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“What we have is a 62-year-old planetarium that has played a very specific purpose of recreating 8,000 of the brightest stars in the night sky, as well as the motions of the planets,” Deane told Daily Maverick.

“With new technology, we can expand [the planetarium’s purpose] dramatically by using digital projectors. We live in a three-dimensional world and there’s a whole variety of worlds that we can project onto this huge dome, the largest in sub-Saharan Africa, and completely broaden the range of experiences one can have in the Dome,” Deane added.

The Dome is two parts of a three-stage project to refurbish the planetarium. Coming in at R75-million, the project was partly financed by Wits University, which provided R20-million, with Anglo putting up R55-million. 

Launching the Dome, chief executive of Anglo American, Duncan Wanblad, said it would “transform the Planetarium into a high-tech, research-intensive facility which will enable future generations of aspiring South African students to contribute to solving some of society’s most pressing challenges… 

“The new facility, once complete, will become an expression of who we are as a people: inventive and curious.” 

Stage three of the project is not yet funded, but is geared to include a new east wing research-focused building for multidisciplinary research in an open plan setting, which will involve in-house data visualisation, a creative studio, film and sound production facilities. The wing is also expected to have a media viewing deck that overlooks the Wits Football Stadium, alongside a rooftop event space. 

Takalani Nemaungani, chief director of astronomy at the Department of Higher Education, reading a speech on behalf of the department, said the Dome is a multidisciplinary vision that will enhance and enable different disciplines to further develop. 

“From the perspective of research and technology development, the Dome will have a broad impact across many disciplines in enabling cutting-edge technology, such as the provision of world-class postgraduate training, cutting-edge multidisciplinary research and community engagement.” DM/OBP

Absa OBP

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  • Jennifer Luiz says:

    I am so very pleased to hear this. I have long lamented to my husband that Wits is a world class institution with so much to offer (its anthropology department and connected Origins Centre prove this) but yet little has been done to raise the profile of its sciences faculties (physics, life sciences etc) – a prime example of this being the outdated and almost irrelevant planetarium. Thank you to all parties involved for injecting some new life into this grand dame.

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