The Planetarium is Not a Toy

The Gheen’s Science Hall and Rauch Planetarium is the choice destination for anyone seeking a place in our area where the universe can be discussed and visualized. On the north side of The University of Louisville’s Belknap Campus is a structure of thoughtful architecture containing state of the art technology to bring the stars closer, figuratively speaking.

Along with a cool courtyard and lobby, featuring a video screen displaying regularly updated HD NASA imagery, the planetarium dome offers very informative demonstrations in astronomy, which greatly surpasses what I saw as a kid on school field trips. Aside from this, they continue laser shows, which will never lose their mesmerizing effect.

What I saw was a live astronomer presentation where the planetarium is operated manually, showing constellations as Jeremy Hornbeck stood at the front, guiding us through our galaxy and beyond. Afterward, I asked him if the dizziness ever goes away. “Oh yeah,” he says. “I can stare at that thing. You can’t make me dizzy.”

saturn_satelliteHornbeck is pursuing his degree in astrophysics. He loves working in the dome, presenting shows for field trips and weekend attendees. It’s obvious that the planetarium’s modern interactivity doesn’t require a pretentious presentation. There’s a feeling of informal fun allowed with this new technology.

They alternate between Star shows and Laser shows every weekend date of operation so people have the option to see different types of shows in the same night.

“Laser shows are often chosen at the end of a school year as kind of a reward for the kids,” says Drew Foster, Technical Coordinator of the facility. “(It’s) a nice thing to do on a Friday or Saturday that has no educational value. You want to let your brain relax and have fun.” The laser used to be involved with star shows. “The laser was originally installed as an add-on to do the constellations in full color. Now that we’ve renovated the theater to a full dome digital system, we don’t have to use it for that. Originally the laser was just as instructional as the star machine and the lectures.”

Physics major Brianna Osbrooks has been working at the Science Hall for five-and-a-half years and operates the planetarium projection system. “With the old projector we had when we were doing live star talks, our star ball projector was literally a ball with holes poked all the way through it and it just shot beams of light out in the exact positions where stars were,” says Osbrooks. “Well, now it’s all built into the projector, so it’s all video projection instead of a janky old star ball.” She laughs.

“Hey. That thing was cool,” Hornbeck interrupts.

Foster feels they have a cooler one now. I asked if anything has been lost in the transition to digital star shows.

“Oh no,” Foster immediately responds. “We gained multiple hundreds of percent. It’s the tool and how you use the tool.” Elaborating on the changes he adds, “We went from a partially covered dome with multi-media video and mechanical stars to now covering the entire dome with the video presentation. The stars are there, but now there’s nebulae and supernovas, and all the great Hubble-esque pictures, and videos you see now can be there, immersing the audience.”

“With the new system we can produce our content in a very timely fashion,” says Foster. He’s been with the facility since the year it was built. Sci-fi fans might appreciate how that year was 2001. “All of the architecture has a teachable astronomical meaning,” Foster explains as we walk through the lobby and out to the courtyard.

“When you’re standing in our courtyard, you’re standing on a five-pointed star, the way the entire building is constructed.” This can easily be seen by airline passengers who get a view of the University when arriving at Louisville International.

The concrete of the courtyard is also a 1:1 representation of the solar system. The circles are the planets and dwarf planet in their sizes relative to one another with the tenth circle being the sun represented in the surrounding brick wall. The wall is also an operational Stonehenge. “The large window points to the north so you can orient yourself (with) north, south, east and west,” Foster says. They also have a public Solar telescope for people to safely observe the sun.

One of the points regularly made during the star show, is that living in a city prevents us from seeing so many of the night sky’s wonders, which ads value to a planetarium’s most basic of simulations. Considering how often teaching standards change or new discoveries are made in the sky, changes can be adapted swiftly now and presented with the fun enthusiasm of this place. VT

Visiting information and various ticket prices can be found at louisville.edu/planetarium.