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History of the Planetarium

Shortly after the opening of Kinard Laboratory in 1961, the planetarium was installed. The unexpected upgrade to a Spitz A3P projector required a twenty-four foot diameter dome, which did not quite fit in the provided space. The fiberglass panel dome had to be truncated, with a flat vertical portion on the "South" side. A wooden platform was constructed around the central projector well, and bench seats were installed. Most of this work was performed by faculty members, including the long-serving Tom Collins and John Gilreath. The projector was an amazing optical-mechanical machine. An arc lamp inside the star ball projected nearly 3000 stars through pin holes and lenses for the brighter ones. It also showed the Milky Way and the Andromeda galaxy.

The sky could be shown for any place and time, by rotating the star ball and changing its elevation angle. Small projectors displayed each of the Sun, Moon, terrestrial and giant planets. Rotating and pivoting mirrors tied to the motion of the projector by systems of gears accurately positions these bodies for any time over many centuries. All of this was controlled with analog electronics by the operator, in the dark, via a set of dials and switches. Separate special effects projectors, which showed a solar system orrery, a polar orbiting satellite, a meteor shower, a solar eclipse, and various coordinate lines and grids, among others, were added.

Approximately 100,000 visitors attended planetarium shows over the years. It was closed in 1994 for budgetary reasons, but with contributions from Ph.D. students Peter Milne and Grant Williams, it was reopened as an all-volunteer operation. Finally, the decision was made to renovate the planetarium and upgrade the equipment. In December 2010, it was closed, and everything except the dome, including floor and seats, was removed from the room. The second floor stock room that intruded into the original dome was removed.

The Next Fifty Years

The fiberglass hemisphere was completed, and a new platform, seats, electrical, flooring, and paint were added. The new projection system selected, a fully digital Digistar 4 by Evans and Sutherland, was installed in March 2011. Two HD projectors on opposite sides of the dome cover it with images, which are generated on a dedicated workstation for each. Another workstation controls the display system, while a fourth handles the surround audio. Anything that can be generated on the computers can be displayed on the dome. The standard database includes nearly one million astronomical objects with locations in three dimensions and other properties. Many are three-dimensional objects themselves, and all can have images placed on them. The view from anywhere can be displayed. We can fly among the planets, then, speeding along at faster than light, fly among nearby stars, out to nearby galaxies, and even to the edge of the observable universe.

Shows can be controlled with point and click GUI's, or with scripted commands. The images displayed can be recorded and replayed as full-dome video. Professionally produced video can also be purchased from other sources. We began shows in Fall 2011 for astronomy labs and for visiting school and university groups. Favorite shows include The Sky Tonight, The Life of a Star, Fly, and The Wonders of the Universe. In addition to field trips and other privately scheduled shows, we offer weekly shows to the public throughout the academic year.

The renovation was funded by student lab fees with substantial contributions from the College of Engineering and Science and the Provost's office. We are seeking additional support from private donors for paying student presenters and purchasing additional full dome shows. Please contact the department to arrange to see a show.