Category Archives: 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.)

A ‘Celestial’ Find for Harpist, Staerkel Director

The Staerkel Planetarium offered its first light show (featuring the music of Pink Floyd) in 1991. In the years since, other shows have graced the dome, and we’ve done a few live musical acts, too. We had the entire Bowdacious String Band in the dome, plus a guitar trio, a four-piece rock band, and even a laptop orchestra.

However, several years ago, Parkland’s Grants and Contracts Manager Josh Birky approached me about doing something different with our shows, something more classical. I thought, “That’s not a bad idea—maybe something more ‘out of the box,’ as they say.”

I contacted a few colleagues in Fine and Applied Arts and eventually made my way to the University of Illinois’ School of Music in search of a harpist. The first harpist wasn’t available, but she suggested doctoral student musician Ann McLaughlin. Ann and I exchanged a few emails after that. She was also interested in doing something new and different and was excited about the idea of her music being backed by visuals in a theatrical setting.

Ann and I didn’t meet until our first rehearsal in the dome. She immediately struck me as very outgoing, passionate about her craft, and interested in “pushing the envelope.”

mclaughlin
Ann McLaughlin. Photo by Bernard Wolff.

We did our first show in late January 2013 and, much to my surprise, we sold the place out! And, in my standard pre-show introduction, I discovered that a little less than half the crowd had never been in the planetarium before!

Shows like these are challenging, as I had to run the visuals live (nothing could really be programmed) and Ann had to learn how to play in nearly full darkness. I set up two spotlights to illuminate Ann so it wouldn’t be quite as dark and, besides, since she is the “star” of the show, people should see her. We also had to run a couple of microphones (one floor-mounted and the other on a boom) so the harp played through our sound system. Our production designer Waylena McCully set up a screen in our digital system for special effects, with some of the clips she created herself.

Since that first program, Ann has performed in our planetarium a couple of times, one being a wedding in which the bridal party hired her to play. More recently, Ann performed a song at the Illinois state meeting of the Great Lakes Planetarium Association. The intent of this performance was twofold. First, we demonstrated what one could do with live music in a planetarium and, second, it got Ann’s name out there.

Now, as Ann finishes her doctoral degree, she will be leaving the area. But, before leaving, she has set up a “planetarium tour,“ with harp dates at the Peoria Riverfront Museum and the Illinois State University Planetarium. She’ll kick off her tour with a return to our dome on September 18 at 8:30 p.m. and then a special matinee on Saturday, September 19, at 2 p.m. Tickets are $5 per person, all sold at the door.

I’ll admit that I don’t have a crate of records at home of harp music, but Ann opened my eyes to a new style, a new sound. Some of the things she does on the harp are amazing! And I’d like to think that we showed Ann another venue for her creativity. I’m looking forward to her last shows beneath the stars. I hope you’ll join us for these special performances!

Plutopalooza at the Planetarium

The New Horizons spacecraft, launched in January 2006, will fly by Pluto tomorrow morning, passing within 7,800 miles of the surface of Pluto and traveling in excess of 30,000 miles per hour. The spacecraft’s antenna is scheduled to be pointed back towards Earth, and New Horizons will “phone home” with the signal, expected to arrive at Earth near 8 p.m. CDT.

Stop by the Staerkel Planetarium Tuesday, July 14, any time from 6 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. and help us commemorate the big event! All ages welcome! PLUS, we’ll have Pluto-related shows on Friday!

Plutopalooza Open House!
Tuesday, July 14 • 6-8:30 p.m.
The planetarium will project the NASA New Horizons press conference on the dome; the public is invited to attend this free, open-house-format viewing. Static displays in the planetarium lobby will depict Pluto’s size and distance from the Sun. Kids will be able to see if they can “discover” Pluto in the stars, to see how high they could jump on Pluto, and to take home New Horizons stickers, while supplies last. The planetarium will also display the locally-produced musical “Found and Lost: The Story of Pluto” in the lobby.

Friday, July 17 • 7 p.m. and 8 p.m.
Staerkel Planetarium’s regular Friday night show lineup will have a “Pluto twist” to it. At 7 p.m., “Prairie Skies” will show the audience the summer constellations and where Pluto is located in the sky. At 8 p.m., “New Horizons: Expedition to Pluto” will be shown on the dome. Both programs will display days-old high-resolution images from NASA’s New Horizons fly-by. Tickets will be sold at the door 30 minutes before each show and are $5 for adults and $4 for students, senior citizens, and children under 12. Those who purchase both shows receive the second show at half price!

[New Horizons image courtesy of NASA.]

Harps and Stars in the Dome on Valentine’s Day!

Are you maybe looking for something different to do for Valentine’s Day weekend? How about offering that someone special the stars and live music?

The Staerkel Planetarium is pleased to bring harpist Ann McLaughlin back to the dome on February 13 and 14 for shows at 8:30 p.m. All you have to pay is $5/person at the door.

Oddly enough, Ann’s first trip into the dome to play in the darkness was a “blind date.” Josh Birky, who works at Parkland in grants and contracts, called us and said, “Have you ever thought about a live concert with something different than a rock and roll band?” I asked what he had in mind, and the harp came up. Ann responded to my “to whom it may concern” email, and the rest is history.

Ann was phenomenal to work with and was very open to different ideas about what visuals to sync to her music. The big question, of course, was . . . .is anyone going to come see a live harp concert? That question was answered quickly, as the first of two shows sold out and we had a standing-room-only audience!

Next came  the challenge of making the harp work in the dome. I was surprised as to how loud the harp sounded in the dome, but we decided to mike it anyway. One microphone is floor-mounted while the other is on a stand where Ann has the option of addressing the crowd. Running the visuals aren’t trivial either, as you can’t really program anything. Although scripts can be preprogrammed into the planetarium’s digital system, they have to be started and stopped manually. Plus, we’ll get to use some visuals that may not fit into our regular programming. It’s challenging, but fun.

It’s amazing how often I get asked if we’re going to do Pink Floyd again! We haven’t done our musical light shows since spring 2014. The digital system is wonderful in the capabilities for flying the audience through the universe, but it won’t play the old programs. We can’t control the old projectors that allowed us to do those old shows. Having live acts like these are the closest we can come to the days of old.

So when we discovered that Valentine’s Day 2015 would occur on a weekend, I immediately got on the phone to Ann, and she was game for a return engagement. We look forward to hosting her AND her harp on the 13th and the 14th.