It took me over a year to design and build an inflatable planetarium theater that was portable, cheap, and durable. But, after many models and different designs, I was able to make an inflatable structure for less than $300 that can be used as a theater, game room, planetarium, office, learning lab, and more!
This site contains everything you need to build your own inflatable planetarium theater.
Why make an Inflatable Planetarium?
Inflatable structures are incredibly expensive, in fact, you can buy an inflatable planetarium but it might cost you more than $15,000 which is more than our school can afford. Several years ago I built a Cardboard Planetarium for my school and for other schools to use. It has been a great project that has inspired countless young people to explore science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). But, for several years I have wanted to build another planetarium that was more portable so I started brainstorming ways to build an inflatable planetarium.
Supplies Needed to Build an Inflatable Planetarium
The amount of tarp needed will depend on the size of your project. I used three 19x29 foot tarps from Harbor Freight because they were very inexpensive. I found these tarps to be very inconsistent and would recommend trying a better quality tarp (I will be using these tarps on the next one I build. And am considering using white tarps) to ensure uniformity in construction.
I highly recommend a Heavy Duty Sewing Machine (I used the Singer 4432) but if you want to keep the costs down and you have a sewing machine available, it would be worth trying it out.
Be sure to use Heavy Duty Sewing Needles. You will be replacing them constantly if they are not strong enough.
The thread is what holds everything together and a cheap, thin thread might cause your project to fail - go with Heavy Duty Thread.
These shears are incredible and reasonably priced!
You don't have to use Masonite, you could use cardboard or plywood or anything that you can find to make your templates. I used it because I had some left over from the Cardboard Planetarium project that we used as cutting boards. The masonite worked well because it is light weight and easy to cut.
I recommend painters tape because it is flexible.
Texas Instruments sponsored the videos for this project and I am thrilled to have them as a partner. I have been using Texas Instruments calculators since 1995 and they continue to be my favorite!
The fan I used has three settings. The highest speed pushes air at 3500 cfm (cubic feet per minute) and the other settings reduce the airflow below that number (I am not sure by how much). I hope to do some testing with cheaper fans (to help people keep the project cost down) and will update this section as I continue to improve the project.
The BenQ MW632ST projector is worth every penny. I have used it for my Augmented Reality Sandbox Project and in the Cardboard Planetarium and now for the Inflatable Planetarium. It is a short-throw projector (can project a clear image at a short focal distance) and the clarity is excellent for the price.
How to Build an Inflatable Planetarium
I made a video outlining the steps for how to make your own inflatable structure but it is likely that parts of it may be confusing or not clear enough for you. If that is the case, please email me and I will begin to fill up this section of the website with clarifications on the construction process so that anyone can build an inflatable planetarium!
You can find all of the measurements for the 16 segments of my conical structure here.
Designing your Inflatable Planetarium
You can adjust the size, shape, and material of your DIY planetarium any way you'd like. If you want a different shape or size, visit www.DIYplanetarium.com for information and formulas to help you design your structure.
What would I use the Inflatable Theater for?
Let the creative juices flow! I've called this project a "planetarium" but it could be used for so many other things like: tent, office, theater, gaming theater, kids play room, game room and so much more!
Who should make an inflatable structure like this?
This is a great project for schools, science clubs, PTA, Scouts, church groups and so many more. I can't wait to hear from people to find out why they chose to build an inflatable structure and the creative ways they use it - feel free to keep me updated on social media or via email.
DIY Planetarium Projector
The first DIY Planetarium I made was a geodesic dome planetarium made from cardboard. For that project I developed a simple projector system that uses a mirror and a projector to make an immersive theater. I bought a of couple inexpensive plastic shelves (find them here) and cut the supports so the spherical mirror (find it here) and the projector would sit at the correct height.
We learned that when it comes to digital projectors, you get what you pay for. We started with a budget Epson projector that worked well (similar models here) but later switched to a Casio DLP projector (similar models here) with much higher resolution. I am now using a BENQ Short Throw Projector which gives the best picture we've ever had in the planetarium. Of course, with greater resolution comes a higher price so go with whatever you already have or whichever model you can afford.
That was all it took! The design and concept worked magically and we saved about $10,000 by making our own!
Instructions for how to build a planetarium projector are in the YouTube video
By chance I happened to find that Discovery Dome and ePlanetarium make some of their professionally produced planetarium movies available to educational institutions for only the cost of the DVD and shipping! You can purchase these amazing planetarium videos at the Space Update website!
Streaming ePlanetarium from YouTube
Another option is to stream the ePlanetarium videos directly from YouTube, although according to licensing this can only be used for educational purposes and you cannot charge anyone to view them. Visit the ePlanetarium site, click on a video you are interested in and click "View Widescreen", this will bring up a warped version of the video that will play on the projector setup described on this page.
No planetarium, even one made of inflatable tarps or cardboard, is complete without a way to project an accurate night sky to gaze skyward and enjoy the stars. So, I downloaded Stellarium, a free, open-source astronomy program. It is a spectacular program and even has folklore constellations pre-loaded in the program so you can teach kids about constellations from cultures around the world. Download it even if you don't have a dome - it is amazing!
Solar Walk (App)
Solar Walk has several built in features that allows you to tour the solar system as well as other features of the Universe. It includes tours with narration and has short videos that help you customize the learning experience for whomever is in the dome. Just plug the tablet or phone directly into the projector and let the learning begin. (Get it for your device here: Android / Apple)
Keep on Learning!