Dooley Planetarium gets NASA upgrade

Tracy Howard, Staff Writer

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New projector at FMU gives enhanced glimpse of the universe

            As part of a nearly $800,000 grant from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the Dooley Planetarium at Francis Marion University (FMU) has undergone a series of renovations, which includes upgrading the star projector.  The former projector, a Spitz model 512, was replaced with a Digistar 5 planetarium system in December 2014.

“The main goal of the grant program was to develop innovative ways to showcase NASA to the public,” said Dr. Jeanette Myers, associate professor of astronomy and director of Dooley Planetarium.

The grant, created specifically for science centers, planetariums, museums and visitor centers, was obtained in partnership with ScienceSouth. It covers the cost and maintenance of the new projector and will also fund the operational costs of presentations for a three year period.  The new projector will also incorporate content from NASA.

“We have access to the latest images and movies from NASA’s Solar Dynamic Observatory as well as many of the Science on a Sphere datasets from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration,” said Myers. “A few science museums across the country have these large spheres that they project these data sets onto, but with the Digistar 5 system, these data sets are mapped onto an Earth sphere which we can manipulate to show any side to the audience.”

Myers said the digital planetarium system’s features are what excite her most about the renovation.

“The Spitz-512 star projector we had could only produce a static star field and had additional mirrors for projecting the sun, moon, and planets,” said Myers. “Although it produced a great looking star field, it was very limited when compared to the new features.”

The digital projector also allows for a customizable star field.  New objects can be easily introduced by searching an extensive database and placed on display.  The new system will also allow for a more interactive experience as there will be increasing opportunities for audiences to make requests.

The digital system will also help to improve students’ understanding of the universe by making a much easier display of astronomical events.

“Common misconceptions can be easily addressed with this new system,” said Myers. “These digital systems are very similar to the astronomy software packages you can purchase for your own computer or smart phone, but the viewing surface is a 33-foot dome instead.”

Other upgrades include the incorporation of a 5.1 stereo sound system and LED lighting system.  The lighting system lines the perimeter of the dome and has the ability to create customizable lighting displays that can be incorporated into the presentations.  The Spitz projector has been donated to the South Carolina State Museum in Columbia and will be placed on display.

Star shows at Dooley Planetarium are free to the public and are created for general audiences. Special programs are periodically held at ScienceSouth for grades K-10.  There will also be shows focusing on NASA’s research that involve more hands-on interaction.  These shows will be held on designated Saturdays and are open to the public but require pre-registration.  Special sidewalk observations are also held throughout the year in downtown Florence.

The first show featuring the Digistar 5 system held on Jan. 11 featuring a presentation entitled “Two Small Pieces of Glass” that was produced by the Carnegie Science Center, Imiloa Astronomy Center and Interstellar Studios.  The next show is scheduled for Jan. 25 and is called “IBEX: Search for the Edge of the Solar System” produced by Adler Planetarium.

For more information about upcoming presentations at Dooley Planetarium, contact Dr. Jeanette Myers at (843)661-1441or jmyers@fmarion.edu.

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