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UW Cuts Ribbon on Newly Renovated Harry C. Vaughan UW Planetarium

January 16, 2015
group of people watching planetarium show, with planets shown above them
A crowd enjoys a star show at the newly renovated Harry C. Vaughan UW Planetarium. (UW Photo)

The University of Wyoming cut the ribbon today (Friday) on the Harry C. Vaughan UW Planetarium, which has undergone a comprehensive renovation of the existing space and extensive technological upgrades, thanks to a gift from the Windy Ridge Foundation.

“This project has transformed the planetarium into a true showpiece for the university,” says UW President Dick McGinity. “It will be enjoyed by thousands and serve an important function in stimulating interest in the sciences among the public, particularly the young people we’re working hard to engage in the crucial fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.”

Constructed in 1969 and refurbished in 2000, the 58-seat Harry C. Vaughan UW Planetarium serves astronomy enthusiasts of all ages. It is part of the UW Department of Physics and Astronomy and is located beneath the east side of the UW Classroom Building and in the basement of the Physical Sciences Building.

The planetarium receives about 3,000 visitors annually, including K-12 school groups. It serves as a teaching laboratory for introductory astronomy courses and, on Fridays, themed shows draw in students and members of the community.

The planetarium was renamed the Harry C. Vaughan UW Planetarium, in honor of the generous donor who made the transformation possible through his Windy Ridge Foundation. The entryway includes a wall honoring him and his work through the Windy Ridge Foundation.

The Windy Ridge Foundation gift of $875,000 for the facility, plus a $350,000 endowment that is doubled with state matching dollars, 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 have been replaced with far more interactive presentations, similar to an IMAX theater.

Technology is not the only upgrade.  The whole facility has been redone, with a new dome, new luxury seating, a new carpet, stylized wall graphics in the entryway, and new signs.

The directors of the Windy Ridge Foundation -- Ann Nelson, Nick Floyd and Dennis Cook -- invite people of all ages to come and enjoy this state-of-the-art facility that Danny Dale and his staff created.

“The technology will be state of the art as well as transformative, enabling tremendous opportunities for developing and providing presentations that can be tailored to our community,” says Dale, head of the Department of Physics and Astronomy. “The facility will provide unique training opportunities for our students and undoubtedly spark an interest in science in the next generation.”

Now, visitors can zoom through space at warp speed, fly by Jupiter and the other gas giants in our solar system, and travel past Pluto and through the outer asteroid belt. Cosmic tours can reach beyond our own Milky Way and explore distant supernovae, gigantic black holes, and the formation of galaxies in the farthest reaches of the universe.

The gift not only supports the full renovation and technological upgrades: K-12 student groups visit the planetarium free of charge, and undergraduate and graduate students who staff the planetarium receive support from the gift. Future maintenance and upgrades also are included.

“Astronomy asks some of the biggest questions that we can think of,” says Tyler Ellis, an Astronomy and Physics undergraduate who has been giving planetarium shows for the last few years. “Where did Earth come from? Where did the universe itself come from? Where is it headed? And we can now show these things in much greater detail and hopefully make more sense of it -- and the public can make more sense of it. The planetarium is really one of the best ways to learn about an interesting and fun topic.”

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

The Windy Ridge Foundation gift also established an excellence fund to benefit the planetarium, which provides long-term sustainability for the facility. Excellence funds are among UW’s most highly valued and strategically useful private investments, providing a steady stream of funding that enables a department or particular area on campus to respond quickly to emerging opportunities and to pursue core initiatives.

Previously, shows 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 simulate the motions of the heavens and can be controlled manually or through keyboard automation. Spitz star ball technology was state of the art when first introduced in 1964.

“The power of the digital planetarium is that you can teach astronomy concepts a lot easier because a lot of them are rooted in a three-dimensional space,” says Dale. “In an old planetarium, you could only understand things two-dimensionally. We’re planted on planet Earth, and you see things moving around up there. It’s hard to understand, for example, why Mars seems to occasionally move backward. With a digital planetarium, it’s much easier to get off Earth and understand things from a three dimensional perspective.”

The company Sky-Skan installed the new dome and the software for the revamped visitor experience. The company, based in New Hampshire, has installed systems in far-flung places such as the Queen Mary 2 ocean liner and the White House lawn.

“This is one of those special gifts that will benefit the entire Wyoming community,” says Ben Blalock, UW Foundation president. “We are so indebted to the Windy Ridge Foundation for making a gift that will be enjoyed by so many. Many gifts to higher education play critical roles in the advancement of science and teaching, but this particular gift is unique in the fact that it will be enjoyed by so many beyond the immediate UW faculty and staff -- by the full UW community.”

Harry Vaughan 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, Vaughan 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.

“Harry Vaughan was a scientist, a science educator and a serious amateur astronomer,” says Dennis Cook, Windy Ridge Foundation director. “His passion in life was to encourage children and young adults to discover the wonders of science and to pursue their education in the sciences. The updated planetarium’s ability to capture the imagination of Wyoming K-12 students by showing them the wonders of the universe with the planetarium’s state-of-the-art technology is a perfect fit for the goals Harry established for his Windy Ridge Foundation.”

Since it reopened in December, the planetarium has been an immediate smash, with all star shows sold out. The trend is expected to continue, so the public is encouraged to purchase their tickets early in the week.

“Come see the show,” says Dale. “Appreciate all the work that went into it and the generosity of both the private foundation and the state of Wyoming. I’ve talked to so many people who came to the planetarium years ago. Previous shows can’t even compare to how they are now.”

Tickets cost $2 for students and $3 for non-students and can be purchased at the Department of Physics and Astronomy main office, located in Room 204 of the Physical Sciences Building, Monday through Thursday from 8 a.m.-5 p.m. and Friday from 8 a.m.-noon. Doors open 20 minutes before each show, where tickets are sold if available.

The ribbon cutting was followed by a demonstration of the planetarium’s capabilities and a lunch at the Marian H. Rochelle Gateway Center. Speakers included McGinity, Cook, UW Board of Trustees President Dave Palmerlee and planetarium Director Travis Laurance. Cutting the ribbon were McGinity; Palmerlee; Cook, Nelson and Floyd of the Windy Ridge Foundation; Dale; Laurance; and Arts and Sciences Dean Paula Lutz.

For more information, go to www.uwyo.edu/physics/ and click on “Planetarium is Open!” on the left-side navigation bar under Quick Links. You can also call (307) 766-6150 or email physics@uwyo.edu.


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Chad Baldwin

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