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Renovated UW Planetarium to Offer Many Opportunities for Campus and Public

October 15, 2014
man in front of planetarium dome display of night sky
Travis Laurance, director of the newly renovated Harry C. Vaughn UW Planetarium, observes the night sky from Earth with the locations and orbits of exo-planets mapped out. (UW Photo)

Before Abraham Lincoln was president, he was a lawyer who saved a life. During a murder trial in 1858, Lincoln, using the 1857 Farmers’ Almanac, disproved a witness who claimed he saw the crime and identified the suspect under the light of the moon. According to the almanac, there was very little moonlight that night, which convinced the jury to acquit the accused.

This and many other fun facts will be provided to students from Rock Springs, who will be the first official visitors to the newly renovated Harry C. Vaughn University of Wyoming Planetarium, located in the Physical Sciences Building. While construction and installation of equipment is scheduled to finish Oct. 31, the students won’t make their visit until Nov. 12.

“We plan to do a planetarium show; have lab tours; let them go up to the rooftop observatory to look at the sun; and talk to them about college and NASA Space Grant (Consortium) scholarships,” Travis Laurance, UW’s planetarium director, says of the itinerary for the Rock Springs visitors.

Students from Johnson Junior High School in Cheyenne will visit the planetarium Nov. 19-21.

“We’re doing this for the kids,” says Danny Dale, UW professor and head of the Department of Physics and Astronomy. “We developed the programming to be whimsical.”

“And a little fantastical,” adds Laurance, who also is lab coordinator for physics and astronomy.

Generous gift allows upgrades, more possibilities

The Windy Ridge Foundation gift of $1.25 million, plus a $350,000 contribution by UW, has advanced the technology to a digital planetarium, which includes more creative educational and entertainment possibilities. Full-dome shows provide immersive 3-D media experiences, and traditional star shows can be replaced with far more interactive presentations, similar to an IMAX theater, Dale says.

These experiences include zooming through space at warp speed; flying by Jupiter and the other gas giants in the solar systems; traveling past Pluto; and passing through the outer asteroid belt. Such cosmic tours can ultimately go beyond the Milky Way and explore distant supernovae, gigantic black holes and the formation of galaxies in the farthest reaches of the universe.

“Before, we had a light bulb shining through a ball with holes that rotated,” Dale says. “Now, we have a computer with a digital database. In a simulated way, we can now zoom through the Milky Way, and zoom to other planets and galaxies.”

Dale makes reference to the planetarium’s previous 2-D shows that were projected using a Spitz star ball, which mimics the distribution and intensity of stars in the night sky by projecting hundreds of tiny dots of light onto the planetarium dome. The movements of the star ball simulated the motions of the Earth and could be controlled manually or through keyboard automation. Spitz star ball technology was first introduced in 1964.

Sky-Skan, a Nashua, N.H.,-based company that installs full-domed planetariums and visualization theaters, installed the new dome, and the LED lighting and wiring that will allow the digital shows at UW. The planetarium will seat roughly 60 people, Laurance says.

Laurance expects the planetarium to continue its popular Friday night star shows and laser light shows, the latter which, in the past, has been accompanied with music by famous bands, such as Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd.

“We expect to have some Friday night shows in November for campus and the public. We may give the shows a new name,” Laurance says. “We want it to be an educational and entertainment mix.”

A tentative Friday night educational and laser show lineup is as follows:

-- Exo-Planets, Pink Floyd, Nov. 14.

-- Solar Planets, Laser Gaga, Nov. 21.

-- Looking for Life, Daft Punk, Dec. 5.

-- Greek Mythology, Winter Wonderlight, Dec. 12.

This technology’s dynamic digital flexibility also will enable other academic disciplines to use the planetarium for UW coursework. For example, biology could show bird migration, geography could show remote sensing, chemistry could show chemical structures, and geology could show earthquake distributions.

“You could teach the motions of the night sky in the introductory astronomy class,” Dale says.

Laurance says there’s the possibility of viewing the interior of the globe in earth science courses and mapping volcanoes in geology and geography courses.

Dale, Laurance and three UW undergraduate students will receive training this month to run the planetarium equipment.

Remembering Vaughn

The planetarium has been renamed in honor of the Windy Ridge Foundation’s founder, who was a professor of meteorology in the Iowa State Department of Geological and Atmospheric Sciences. Vaughn taught courses in meteorology, earth sciences and agronomy. Before teaching at Iowa State, he worked at the Ames Laboratory.

Upon retirement, Vaughn moved to Laramie, where he befriended a number of faculty members in UW’s Department of Atmospheric Science. He devoted his time to his love of astronomy and built a personal observatory in his backyard to make his own astronomical observations. He also mentored UW students.

Constructed in 1969 and refurbished in 2000, the planetarium serves astronomy enthusiasts of all ages. The planetarium receives approximately 3,000 visitors annually, including K-12 school groups that visit throughout the year. It serves as a teaching laboratory for introductory astronomy courses.

An official grand opening likely will occur in mid-January 2015, Dale says.

“This will take you to places you want to go in the universe,” Dale says. “Previously, you were stuck on Earth. Now, you will be able to go to the moon, Mars and Jupiter.”


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Chad Baldwin

Institutional Communications

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