04/06/2013 07:00 EDT | Updated 06/06/2013 05:12 EDT

Montreal's new $48-million planetarium opens doors to public

MONTREAL - Canadian astronaut Julie Payette admits she was a little skeptical when she got a peek at Montreal's new $48-million planetarium on Friday.

Payette said the scientist in her is used to the normal planetarium where discussions focus on stars and black holes.

She wasn't too sure about the new facility's theatre with its light-and-sound show.

"I was a little skeptical at first of the idea that we'd be into imaginative and creative stuff that is not necessarily rooted in pure science," the 49-year-old engineer told The Canadian Press.

"But I think it will attract people who would not necessarily come to a planetarium in the first place."

The Rio Tinto Alcan Planetarium, which officially opens its doors to the public on Saturday, is unique because it contains two very different theatres, which are housed under two enormous shiny cones.

The Milky Way Theatre, which seats about 200, is the traditional astronomical facility where visitors study and learn about the starry sky.

It's described as state-of-the art, with what astronomers say is the most authentic possible representation of the night sky.

There are views of celestial bodies as seen by the naked eye, but visitors will see even more if they bring along a pair of binoculars.

In the second hall, dubbed the Chaos Theatre, visitors sit back on bean bags and are taken on a 20-minute multimedia odyssey through the universe.

The extraterrestrial voyage, called Continuum, begins quietly on the ground as visitors gaze at the stars through the shadow of trees.

They are then propelled out into space and travel to far-off planets and galaxies, visit the Sun and even watch huge space rocks slam into each other.

The planetarium also features a permanent interactive exhibition with projections and multimedia games which ponder the question of whether life exists beyond Earth.

There is also a section containing the largest public collection of meteorites in Quebec. There are more than 300 pieces, including meteorites that originated on the moon and Mars.

Executive-director Charles-Mathieu Brunelle said the Montreal planetarium with its two theatres is unique when compared to other such facilities in Canada.

"The Rio Tinto Planetarium presents (two) different aspects of living with the universe," he said on Friday.

Brunelle also said the Chaos Theatre will be put at the disposal of other artists who want to present shows that focus on astronomy and life on Earth.

Payette described the new 10,000-square-metre-planetarium as "the marriage of arts and science."

"I'd like more people to come to our educational institutions where they are going to further their understanding of who they are," she added.

The new three-level Rio Tinto Alcan Planetarium, which is located in east-end Montreal, is about four times larger than the city's old downtown planetarium which closed in late 2011.

More than six million star-struck visitors passed through its doors in the last 30 years.

Officials expect its shiny new replacement at the foot of the Olympic stadium tower to welcome 400,000 people in 2013.