Housing the universe

By Shane Michard | Evergreen reporter

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Complemented by a newly upgraded projector, WSU’s planetarium will likely leave curious planet-watchers and aspiring astronomers starry-eyed.

The planetarium opened in Sloan hall in 1962, and was upgraded with a Spitz A3 star projector in 1968. The Spitz showed constellations and the individual stars making them up, but not much else.

Run from a computer, a new custom-built LCD projector now supplements the Spitz with a bright, 1,080-pixel display that is reflected onto the dome ceiling by a series of spherical mirrors.

The entire project cost around $2,500, mostly spent on the digital projector itself. Guy Worthey, associate professor of the department of physics and astronomy, said the systems are both in place, and the Spitz can be used at any time as a backup.

Worthey hopes for future collaborations that would make different potential uses possible for the planetarium using the new system, including other science demonstrations, and even computer gaming in complete 3-D.

For now, the dome houses only the entire universe.

While the original equipment only showed stars, the new software offers complete control of the sun, planets, comets and other features of the night sky, said Michael L. Allen, senior professor of the department of physics and astronomy.

“We’ve tried to make our shows as realistic as possible,” said Allen. “We can change anything from the season to where the horizon is positioned, it’s all totally dynamic.”

Allen said that a different theme is chosen for each show, based on the season.

The shows convey the mythological background of certain constellations: a show in February might be focused on constellations like Andromeda the princess and other ancient love-stories.

This October, “Athletes of the Sky” will show visitors myths of strength and heroism, along with the true athletes of the sky: black holes.

Allen said constellations serve as a type of pneumonic device and each has a multitude of possible meanings, based on who interprets them.

“It’s been done all through history,” Allen said. “One might associate a certain memory with a certain constellation.”

Clinical Professor of English, Michael E. Delahoyde, said that constellations and the stories behind them are a metaphorical way of understanding the human condition, including love, creation, and natural phenomena.

“The impulse behind these constellations was, presumably, to take what looked random in the sky and impose some patterns to make it recognizable or familiar,” said Delahoyde.  

Allen said of the estimated 1,200 visitors to the planetarium each year, a majority of them are middle school students on field trips.

Delahoyde explained that adults are less likely than kids to be fascinated and open-minded about the stars and sky.

 “Their GPS renders obsolete any practical application of the night sky,” he said.

The WSU planetarium offers groups of ten or more free virtual tours of the night sky during business hours.