You walk into a dark, dome-shaped room, lie on a mat on the floor, and set off on a tour of the universe.
Virtually, that is. The digital, 3-D tour of outer space comes courtesy of the ExploraDome, an inflatable, igloo-shaped, portable planetarium.
The dome combines data from NASA with videogame technology to display locales from the surface of the sun to the rings of Saturn to the edge of the universe. Sponsored by the Minnesota Planetarium Society and operated by the Bell Museum of Natural History, it travels to schools and community events around the state. Name a destination and, if NASA has mapped it, the ExploraDome can take you there -- even on a dizzying trip into a black hole.
"You feel like you've been dropped into a video game," said Susan Weller, the Bell's executive director.
For now, the ExploraDome has replaced plans for a permanent planetarium, a project that was scrapped during last year's state budget crisis.
Some research suggests that a dome, because it mirrors the shape of the brain, may provide a more effective learning surface than a two-dimensional plane, Weller said.
In any case, scientists consider the digital technology by which the ExploraDome propels viewers into the cosmos such an effective tool that they're considering adapting it for use in exploring a space much closer to home: the human heart.