If you ask most cab drivers where to see stars in Las Vegas, they’ll tell you to get tickets to a show or hit a nightclub. With all of that light pollution, the city isn’t known for its observatories. But there is at least one place for budding astronomers to visit while they’re in town: the CSN Planetarium.
CSN is the College of Southern Nevada, the area’s two-year college system. The Planetarium is located at the Cheyenne Campus, which is several miles north of Downtown. It’s a quick drive from the 15–just head north until you hit Cheyenne, go east and then, after about a mile, the campus is on your left.
Finding the Planetarium is a bit of a quest–there is absolutely no exterior signage. Having never been there before, I used Google Maps to locate it, but couldn’t find anything that looked like an entrance. Finally a security guard gave me directions.
The Planetarium isn’t connected to a world-famous observatory like the one at Griffith Park, and if you’re expecting that kind of facility, you’ll be disappointed. But if you come to the Planetarium for what it is–a science venue in a community college–you can have a wonderful time learning about the skies with your kids. The Planetarium is basically two rooms and a hallway in the building that houses the Education, Social Science, and Science departments. But for someone with a shred of imagination, it’s a link to the stars. Most kids have imagination, so play along, and you’ll have fun.
Get there a little early–as you’ll be reminded several times, the shows start promptly on time, and there is no late entry. Once you’re inside, you can leave, but you can’t come back in. So if anyone needs to go to the bathroom, do it before the show.
You buy your tickets in the small gift shop, which had plenty of neat science and astronomy related posters and toys available for sale. Some of the stuff seemed like it was scavenged; for example, there were a few NASA postcards of random shuttle missions: one featured the mission insignia of STS-4; another had the crew of STS-7; yet another had the crew of STS-41-B. It gives you the feeling that you’re meeting science on the frontier, where resources are scarce but enthusiasm runs high. It’s $6 for adults and $4 for kids.
The Planetarium itself is small. I might be spoiled from having been to the one at Griffith Park, which has seating all around in reclining chairs, so that you’re practically laying on your back as you watch the stars move above you, but at 30 feet, the dome isn’t the biggest, and the seating is in regular theater-style chairs. Again, this isn’t a knock on the Planetarium–we had a fantastic time and, given the resources, it’s phenomenal that CSN has something like this open to the public. I just don’t want to raise expectations that this is the kind of thing you’d see at a major observatory/science center.
This was a two-person mission for Prima and me. I’d say that, at 4 and some change, she’s at about the bottom age range where kids can actually get something out of this. Much younger, and I’d also say that there’s the risk of the kid being freaked out by the show.
There are three shows on Friday (6, 7, and 8 PM) and four on Saturday (3:30, 6, 7, and 8 PM). We went to the Saturday early show, and got a “double-header” of “Season of Light” and “Stargazing.”
Here’s the trailer for “Season of Light”
The show was about a half-hour long, give or take, and started by talking about the science of the solstice before moving into several religious holidays around this period, including Chanukah, Christmas, Saturnalia, and traditional Native American and Celtic rites.
The producers walk a delicate line between being respectful of all the traditions and advocating for any particular one of them though, as can be expected, they spend most time talking about Christmas and considering various astronomical phenomena that might have been associated with the birth of Jesus. All in all, it’s a good show.
Then there’s the much shorter “Winter Stargazing” show, which provides a good introduction to stars visible in the hours after sundown during the winter months. at the end of this, you’ll be able to find Polaris, and, using Orion and Sirius, find all the stars of the Winter Circle. Fun stuff.
We found one of the most remarkable things after the show was over. Right outside the doors, there’s a display with a tire. Big deal, you might say. Only it turns out it’s one of the main landing gear tires that Discovery used on STS-121. It’s indescribably cool to be able to touch (well, there were no signs that said don’t touch it) something that’s been in space and played such a critical role in getting our astronauts safely home. Prima and I went home and watched launch and landing footage of STS-121. Here’s a bonus clip of ascent footage from inside the cockpit.
There are other small exhibits in display cases around the planetarium and, if you go up to the second floor and walk a bit, models of the space shuttle and ISS and an Astronaut Wall of Fame with signed portraits from a few dozen astronauts, mostly from the Mercury/Gemini/Apollo era, though there are several shuttle astronauts as well. You can have some fun talking about the accomplishments of some of these astronauts with your kids–well, at least I did.
All in all, this is about an hour of activity, give or take, depending on how much time you spend afterwards looking at the exhibits. You’ll want to check the schedule before heading up, because it changes. I know Prima and I are looking forward to seeing the next show in January, and when she’s a little older we’ll hopefully catch the late show and do some real stargazing afterwards.
The CSN Planetarium is an unexpected gem of a find in North Las Vegas–lots of fun for any kids interested in space (and parents, too).
Now, as far as finding it…here’s the best way. Using this map, I can save you the hassle I had. Head east on Cheyenne after you exit the 15, make a left on Community College Drive, then the first right. Park in that lot, and walk right up to the “L” building. You won’t see any signs, but trust me, the planetarium’s waiting for you inside.
If you live in town, this is your best chance to see planetarium shows on a regular basis in the area’s only planetarium. If you’re from out of town, it’s not a bad place to take the kids for part of an evening if you want to get away from the Strip. Combined with a leisurely off-Strip dinner before or after the show, it could make for a nice evening. You can get all of the details and check which shows are current right here.