LIVORNO, Italy — A new Viking Cruises ship debuting this week in Europe has a surprise feature: A high-tech planetarium.
Viking executives late Wednesday offered USA TODAY and several other media outlets a sneak peek at the 26-seat attraction atop Viking Orion — a 930-passenger vessel that will be christened Thursday evening in Livorno, Italy. The circular, theater-like space had been kept a secret for more than a year while the ship was under construction.
Dubbed the Explorers' Dome, the attraction will use the latest in planetarium technology to offer shows about space and exploration, including one that includes a segment on NASA's new Orion spacecraft.
"It's the highest-definition 7K planetarium in the world," Viking's executive director operations for ocean Ralph de Klijn said during a demonstration.
Orion is only the second cruise ship in the world to debut with a planetarium. Cunard's 14-year-old Queen Mary 2 also launched with a planetarium that for years has been the only one of its kind at sea.
Orion's Explorers' Dome is located on the second level of the ship's two-deck-high, forward-facing Explorers' Lounge. It's a space that houses exhibits on exploration on other Viking vessels.
Built at a Fincantieri shipyard in Ancona, Italy, Orion is the fifth in a series of almost identical ocean cruise vessels that Viking has been rolling out since entering the ocean cruise business in 2015. Its first sailing with paying passengers begins Tuesday.
Viking executives at Wednesday's unveiling of the Explorers' Dome said the concept wasn't necessarily something that would spread to other ships. The line has eleven more vessels on order for delivery between now and 2027.
"It's on this ship. It may or may not be on all other ships going forward," Viking marketing chief Richard Marnell told USA TODAY. "We're evaluating it. It's sort of a pilot program."
Marnell said executives see the dome as an art installation and noted the art on every Viking ship is a little different. The art is the only major thing that is different from vessel to vessel in the Viking fleet.
In addition to the Explorers' Dome, Orion features photographs of NASA astronauts and missions in public areas. The godmother for Thursday's christening ceremony will be a former astronaut, Anna Fisher, who worked on NASA's Orion spacecraft project in addition to flying on a space shuttle.
The new dome, photographs and choice of godmother for Orion fit a theme of exploration — a Viking touchstone. The line's trips are designed for exploration-minded travelers with diverse, destination-focused itineraries around the world and extensive enrichment offerings.
In addition to offering shows in the Explorers' Dome, Orion will sail with a Viking Resident Astronomer who will lecture on the mysteries of the cosmos and how humans have explored it. The on-board astronomer also will offer guided tours of the night sky during stargazing sessions.
The ship also has a digitally stabilized portable telescope that can pair up with the Explorers' Dome to offer a live view of the surrounding sky.
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