Category Archives: Planetarium

Night in the Middle of Day

***Accommodations in southern Illinois are a hot commodity right now, filling up fast to see the August solar eclipse described below! Securing your reservations now at the Ondessonk Camp might be a good idea (It’s first come, first served), so we’re giving this blog post a very early send-out.***

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There are many experiences in nature that make you go “wow!” Maybe it is your first view of the Grand Canyon, or the ocean, or even a rainbow. But what is it about an eclipse of the Sun that draws so many people? Why do some “eclipse chasers” travel thousands of miles to see an event that can, at most, last seven and a half minutes?

If you are curious, you will get your chance this August, with very little travel required. On Monday, August 21 at 11:53 a.m., the Moon will begin to cover the Sun. The Moon will be completely in front of our Sun at 1:20 p.m., and “totality” will only last two minutes and forty seconds.

However, to see this total solar eclipse, you must travel southward. You need to be in the Moon’s shadow, which begins in Oregon and travels through the Midwest, on to South Carolina. This is the first coast-to-coast eclipse in our country since 1918! It is estimated that over 12 million people will either be in the eclipse’s path (including Kansas City and St. Louis) or will travel to the path.

Eclipse Explained
But what’s going on in August? Why is this happening? The Moon takes 29.5 days to orbit our Earth, which is our basis for our month, or “moonth.” During New Moon, the Moon is in the same area of the sky as our Sun, hence we only see the dark, unlit side of the Moon. The Moon’s orbit, however, is tilted five degrees to the Earth’s orbit.

To put this in perspective, if you hold out your fist at arm’s length and close one eye, one fist is about ten degrees. So a “half-fist” doesn’t seem like much, but it’s enough that the Moon usually appears to pass above or below the Sun each month. This is why we don’t have solar eclipses at every New Moon and lunar eclipses at ever Full Moon. The Moon is 400 times smaller than the Sun but it is also 400 times closer to us. Thus the Sun and the Moon appear to be the same size in our sky.

During times that the Moon does cut across the face of the Sun, the shadow of the Moon crosses the Earth, and those in the path will experience this grand event. There will be an eclipse this coming February 26 but you have to be in far southern South America or South Central Africa to see it. Which bring us to August 21.

How to View the Eclipse
If you want to see the eclipse, you must take precautions, as the Sun exhibits a blinding light. If you stay in Champaign County, 93 percent of the Sun will be covered by the Moon. While this is significant, 7 percent of the Sun will still blind you. There are several safe ways to observe the eclipse. The easiest is to locate some mylar eclipse glasses. The Staerkel Planetarium has these glasses for sale at $1 per pair. You are also safe if you have a #14 welder’s glass.

If you own a telescope, you can point the telescope at the Sun by using the telescope’s shadow. When the telescope is roughly aligned with the Sun, the shadow of the tube will look like a circle on the ground. Do NOT look through the telescope, but put a white index card roughly 6-8 inches behind the eyepiece and project an image of the Sun. Be wary of solar filters that thread into the telescope’s eyepiece! Here you are filtering the Sun at the point where the Sun’s brilliance is being focused. If the filter cracks, your eyesight is at severe risk. Appropriate solar filters attenuate the Sun’s glare before it enters the telescope.

There is also the age-old method of a pinhole camera. Hold two pieces of cardboard roughly 2-3 feet apart and put a pinhole in the sheet nearest the Sun. You should see an image of the Sun on the second sheet. Better yet, use a peg board!

Seeing the Total Eclipse: An Observing Opportunity
If you want to see the total eclipse and not a partial, you will have to head south. But where do you go? The maximum duration of this eclipse occurs near Carbondale. Good luck finding lodging in Carbondale! Any that might be available will be sold at an, shall we say, “inflated” rate. The University of Illinois Astronomy Department will set up shop in Goreville, south of Marion, Illinois.

The William M. Staerkel Planetarium is partnering with the Champaign-Urbana Astronomical Society and Twin City Amateur Astronomers (from Bloomington-Normal) to offer a weekend of observing from Camp Ondessonk (https://ondessonk.com), a Catholic youth camp located southeast of Marion and just south of Ozark, Illinois. The camp can provide rustic lodging and all meals for $115 per person. CUAS and TCAA will provide educational workshops on Sunday, the day before the eclipse, plus a dark-sky star party on Sunday night (weather permitting). Meals will be served in the camp dining hall. Tent camping is also allowed. If you would like to join us on our eclipse trek, you need to register by August 1. Point your web browser to https://ondessonk.com/event/2017-great-american-eclipse-event/ for more information. The planetarium will not be accepting registrations and there will be no event at the planetarium on the day of the eclipse.

Let’s hope for clear weather! IF we miss this event, the next “Great American Eclipse” will be on April 8, 2024!

The planetarium will be including information about the eclipse during our Friday night “Prairie Skies” star show. For more information on this event and how to observe it, go to the Staerkel Planetarium’s website and click on the image of the solar eclipse.

[Dave Leake is director of the William M. Staerkel Planetarium.]

Image from NASA.gov, with credit: Steve Albers, Boulder, CO; Dennis DiCicco, Sky and Telescope; Gary Emerson, E. E. Barnard Observatory

“The Stargazer” Returns to the Dome . . . Sort Of

A “new, old” planetarium show returns to the dome of the William M. Staerkel Planetarium for the first time. Granted, this sentence doesn’t make much sense, but maybe a little history is in order, as the background for the show actually begins with our planetarium.

stargazer
The Stargazer

Dr. James B. Kaler is professor of astronomy at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Now retired, Kaler has published over 120 papers and over a dozen popular books all concerning his first love—the sky. His appearances on television, in lecture halls, and in our planetarium dome for our “World of Science” lecture series make him a community icon when it comes to skywatching.

The Great Lakes Planetarium Association (GLPA) is the largest of seven regional organizations in the country. Members from the Big Ten states meet annually in the fall to exchange ideas, sample the latest technology, and see the newest shows.

Kaler was introduced to GLPA when he was asked to give a talk by then director David Linton when Parkland College hosted the conference in 1989. Jim gave the first Astronomy Update talk, a summary of the astronomical discoveries from the previous year. Little did he know that he’d be asked to give the update for the next 19 years thereafter! It is now an annual conference tradition.

In 1999, Kaler was GLPA’s Spitz Banquet speaker. His talk was so inspiring that two planetarians, Dave DeRemer from Waukesha, Wisconsin, and Bob Bonadurer, who then was working in Minneapolis, decided to build a show around it. They applied for and received a NASA IDEAS grant to produce the show in 2001, and The Stargazer premiered to delegates at the 2002 GLPA conference in Menasha, Wisconsin using 120 35mm slides. Does anyone remember slide projectors? The show was distributed as a slide set for a short time and then included digital images not long after that.

Thanks to a team led by Ken Murphy at Southwest Minnesota State University and funding from GLPA, The Stargazer is now available as a fulldome show using the latest technology in the field. Initially we thought Ken would merely digitize the images from the show and render it out as a fulldome production, but he has completely re-envisioned the program, with different scenes not included in the original program.

Kaler himself and Nichelle Nichols (Lt. Uhura from the original Star Trek) narrate this personal look at skywatching. The show begins with a child’s curiosity, moves on to the science of gravity, light, the spectrum, and how they help us decipher the lifestyles of the stars. This is the best treatment of the Hertzsprung-Russell Diagram (central to stellar astronomy) I’ve ever seen in any planetarium program! The show ends with reflections on the deeper meanings of astronomy in our own lives. The 37-minute program is aimed at 4th grade and up but it also serves as a wonderful public show.

The Staerkel Planetarium will open The Stargazer in our 8 pm time slot beginning January 20.

There are many aspects of this “new, old” show that involve the Staerkel Planetarium:

  • First, as A/V curator for GLPA, I am in charge of distributing the show to planetariums who want to purchase it for their own facility.
  • Second, part of the video included in the show was shot in the Staerkel Planetarium dome. See if you can see our Zeiss star projector in the show!
  • Third, in the show, Dr. Kaler refers to a planetarium he built himself as a teenager. With his homemade device, he can project roughly 500 stars in a room using an old Crisco can! That unique homebuilt planetarium appears on display in our lobby.
  • Fourth, this is the first planetarium show that we know about that comes with captioning for the hearing impaired. On one weekend per month, we will be running the captioned show (see our schedule for these weekends).

This is GLPA’s first show offered to other planetariums on a short-streaming contract. Interested planetariums can live stream the show on a three-day license.

We hope you will come see The Stargazer again . . . .for the first time!

[Dave Leake is director of the William M. Staerkel Planetarium.]

 

Pink Floyd is Back! Well . . . Sort of . . .

laser_posterThe William M. Staerkel Planetarium, being a science facility, is going to try an experiment: On the weekend of February 19/20 and again February 26/27, we will offer laser shows in the dome at 9:30 and 10:30pm.

The cost is $8 per person per show, with all tickets being sold at the door. You can find a full lineup of programming if you check out the planetarium website.

Now. some folks may dispute this fact, but this is the first time laser shows have been offered to the public beneath Staerkel’s dome. We’ve come close to it before: Back in 1990, members of the Parkland Astronomy Club met to discuss new projects, and someone mentioned doing a musical show at the planetarium as a fundraiser. We chose Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon as the classic soundtrack for the new show. The planetarium staff proposed creating it as a laser show, but the college refused the request, so club members began looking for different ways to depict the show visually.

chuckdave3
Chuck Greenwood and Dave Leake develop the first light show.

Developing the First Light Show
One of the items we looked at were light beams. At that time, the planetarium sported 70 computer-controlled slide projectors. By placing a few holes at the bottom of a 35mm slide frame that’s all dark and then putting it through a projector, light would only come out through those holes. Then, with chemical fog in the room, you could see the beams. Turning on several projectors at once made it look like we had a multiple-projector laser system! This was evident during the opening of the song Time, where the clock’s tick-tocks were synced visually using one slide in each panorama projector and only one dot in the corner of each frame. By cross-fading the dots back and forth, we had beams crisscrossing in time to the music.

Our Carl Zeiss star projector looked great in the fog, too. As we spun the machine on its three axes (diurnal, latitude, and precession), you could see all the star beams as they left the machine and headed for the dome, again appearing like laser beams (though they weren’t). The original show’s creator, Chuck Greenwood, used a special projector called a “revealer” to perform a classic prism effect as well. Using a motor, he pulled an occulting frame across the focal plane of the projector, basically revealing from right to left whatever image is placed in the projector. So one regular slide projector projected the prism and the revealer allowed the image of a light beam to appear to enter the prism and split into the classic spectrum. We had to align this effect before every show, mounting the revealer upside down so as to display the image with the correct orientation.

2010 reunionOur Premiere Weekend was Hot…in More Ways than One!
Oddly enough, our light show debut was supposed to have a laser in it! Chuck had bought a laser and built the effects to go with it for the show. It failed literally right before our premiere, so we scrambled to put a short section of film in that spot. That section of film worked so well, it stayed in the show all the way to 2010!

On our opening weekend in May 1990, we sold out all four shows! We even had some “special guests” attend our late show one evening. During the spinning of the Zeiss in one song, we had strobes go off, which was an awesome effect. I told Chuck at the time that those looked really cool. He replied that he didn’t do those! It was the fire alarm! The fog had evidently become too thick, which had set off the alarm. Then we had to convince the audience that this was real.  I don’t think the fire department was all that happy to see why they had been summoned.

(Chuck later presented a paper at a regional conference titled “Laser Shows Without Lasers.” It raised a few eyebrows since no one was doing anything like this.)

End of the Light Show Run
Unfortunately, we had to stop doing our light shows (we never advertised them as laser shows) in 2010 when the Staerkel Planetarium went digital. We had to remove all the former slide projectors from the dome, thus making it impossible to do the lightbeam effects. The last light show we did was naturally Dark Side. I had tears in my eyes performing it for the last time. And Chuck flew all the way from Florida to attend the last show. I still have one of the 1990 posters framed in my basement. It had been quite a 20-year run!

Of course, our new Digistar 4 system is phenomenal. We can do so many more things with it than we could with slide projectors … but it won’t play the old shows.

Pink Floyd…Again!
Nearly six years later, I still get asked probably twice a week, “Hey, when are you going to do Floyd again?” The interest that remains for those shows is amazing. This brings us to the last two weekends of February 2016. With the help of Audio Visual Imagineering, we will be renting a laser system for these weekends. And on February 19, night number one of four, I’m insisting on a “Pink Floyd Night.” It will be Dark Side followed by The Wall. True, it won’t be the same show, but it will be nice to hear that classic lineup of songs in the dome, once again. I hope you’ll enjoy it with us!

[Dave Leake is director of the William M. Staerkel Planetarium.]

Gaming…Under The Dome!

I have a confession to make. I am a gamer geek. And I am always looking for new ways to introduce new people to the games I love.

One game in particular has grabbed my attention for the last three years and has taken up a big part of my free time in both game play and game development. Its called Artemis: Spaceship Bridge Simulator.

What the heck is that, you say?

Well, think Star Trek. The players are in the roles of Captain, Helm, Tactical, Engineering, Science, and Communications, and they all have to work together to defeat the enemies, survive, and win the game! It uses a series of linked computers that act as duty stations for the roles that the players take on. The action takes place when all of the players work together with the info and abilities their duty stations provide to make it all come together as a cooperative team and crew. Together, you win. Alone, you lose.

Like I said, I have played this game a lot and have taken it to local game conventions, private parties, and at home and seen how much fun people have in building a team to win the game. It was also after a discussion about how to bring people to Parkland College, especially younger, potentially future college students, that it occurred to me that maybe something like the Artemis game could be presented at the Staerkel Planetarium as a fun event and, at the same time, expose the players to the planetarium and the college!

I recall that something like this happened to me as a grade school student. A writing contest was presented to local grade schools and winners were brought to the college for writing workshops. I was one of those students who came to Parkland College those many years ago, and whether it was intentional on the part of the writing workshop organizers or not, I knew then that I would be attending Parkland in the future. If it worked back then, maybe it would work now.

I spoke to Director David Leake and the staff at the planetarium about my idea, and they pretty much did not bat an eye at the suggestion. I set up my personal “bridge” and did a play test for him to show how it would work, and over a few weeks we put together a plan to offer this game event on a day when the local schools were not in session. We sent information and promotions via social media and WPCD and before we knew it, the registration list was full, with all time slots filled.

It remains to be seen what comes of the experience of “gaming under the dome” will have on the players in relation to future students at Parkland College, but I know it will be fun, and they will have a good experience with the college. We hope the event will be well received and would like to maybe do it again. If you are curious about it, stop on by the planetarium on Monday, Oct 12 from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. and check it out! (Fee is $2 per spectator.)

If we decide to do it again, you just might want to tell your friends about it and join the fun!

[Deane Geiken is WPCD-FM 88.7‘s radio director.]

Catch the Harvest Moon Eclipse This Weekend

The skies should be great for viewing the “harvest Moon” that will pass into the shadow of the Earth, resulting in a total lunar eclipse, this Sunday evening (September 27).

If you want to view the eclipse more closely, stop by the William M. Staerkel Planetarium at Parkland College, beginning at 8 p.m. The CU Astronomical Society will have telescopes set up outside in the bus drop-off drive. Park in the M-1 lot and walk over.

Unlike their solar counterparts, lunar eclipses are very safe to observe. It is just like looking at a full Moon in the sky, but it will appear as if something is taking a bite out of the Moon! If skies are clear, anyone in the Midwest should be able to see the eclipse from their backyard.

The Moon will begin to enter the dark part of the Earth’s shadow at 8:07 p.m. The Moon will be completely inside the Earth’s shadow by 9:11 p.m. and will begin to emerge from the shadow by 10:23 p.m. The full Moon will appear back in the night sky by 11:27 p.m.

This full Moon will be closest to the autumn equinox, traditionally called the “harvest Moon,” with an eclipse midpoint occurring just 59 minutes after the Moon’s closest approach to the Earth, also called “perigee.” Some have called a full Moon near perigee a “supermoon.”

There are two things to look for while you’re watching this eclipse. The first is the curved shadow of the Earth. In ancient times, this was evidence that the Earth was, in fact, round and not flat. Second, after the eclipse is well underway, look for a reddish tint on the Moon. The red is from sunlight that bends through the Earth’s atmosphere. The blue is scattered out, which is why we have blue skies, leaving the red part of the spectrum to strike the Moon.

The next total lunar eclipse easily visible from central Illinois won’t be until January 2019, so I hope you get a chance to catch this one! (If the weather isn’t perfect, call the CUAS hotline at 217/351-2567 to see if the observing event at the planetarium is still occurring.)