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Rotunda Planetarium at UVA

Detail of UVA Rotunda Planetarium with Constellations
Photo: Dan Addison, University of Virginia Communications

Thomas Jefferson’s design of the Rotunda at UVA has made it one of the most iconic structures in the United States. But at the time of his death in 1826, his plans for its interior had not yet been realized.

“The concave ceiling of the Rotunda,” Jefferson wrote in 1819, “is proposed to be painted sky-blue and spangled with gilt stars in their position and magnitude copied exactly.”

Now, thanks to three resourceful doctoral students, that vision has come to life in the Rotunda’s Dome Room.

The project began when the students discovered Jefferson’s notes and sketches while doing research for the University’s Rotunda Library Online project. His vision was for the stars to be repositioned daily using complicated pulleys and lifts.

Thankfully, no such mechanics are required in 2020. Instead, digital images are cast onto the ceiling of the Dome Room with five projectors.

The constellations displayed approximate the early-19th-century night sky, using images from a star catalog compiled by John Flamsteed, the first “Astronomer Royal” in the late 17th century and founder of the Royal Greenwich Observatory.

The Rotunda Planetarium will be available for public viewing on January 11 and February 1, from 6:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. Additional dates may be made available in the spring.