Outlook

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Thursday, December 6, 2007

Planetarium

Assistant Professor David Williams teaching in the planetarium

Planetarium Director David Williams has gained a powerful helper in bringing the galaxies to life for students and star gazers of all ages. This year St. Cloud State University replaced its outdated star projector in the Wick Science Building Planetarium with "The Chronos," a potent space simulator that’s one of only 15 in the world.

"This gives us galaxies, nebulas and clusters of stars we couldn’t see with the old projector," said Williams, who relishes his job of sharing views of the night skies with astronomy classes and with the public in private group presentations and in the popular Astronomy Public Nights that have captivated standing room-only audiences for more than 30 years. More than 5,400 people attended planetarium shows last year.

The former projector, a ball with pinholes that showed blobs of light on the ceiling of the planetarium, was purchased in 1973, but Williams said it was based on gear-driven technology of half a century ago. The new Chronos system projects 8,500 bright, realistic pinpoints of light – more than twice as many stars as the old projector – and 24 constellations instead of just two.

The fiberoptic projections of the new planetarium equipment provide a far more precise view of the motion of the planets, zodiacal constellations and many other celestial objects. For instructors and students the Chronos also offers a much more efficient classroom experience. For example, Williams said, to view what the sky looked like a few years in the past would have taken the old gear-driven projector 10 minutes to get re-oriented. Now, the new projector takes just seven seconds.

"The new show is more vibrant," said Williams, who’s been planetarium director since 2004. Currently an assistant professor who teaches St. Cloud State astronomy classes as well as dazzling audiences with the new-and-improved planetarium show, he’s a former high school science teacher whose passion has always been astronomy and earth science. He happily came out of retirement to take on new responsibilities at St. Cloud State that he readily admits add up to a dream job.

"We hear a lot of oohs and ahhs. This new automated system that controls light, sound, music and auxiliary projectors merges everything together into a beautiful planetarium package, and it’s just slick."

"It’s really cool to see all the new features," said Regan Bovee, a junior from St. Cloud who brings an interest in mythology to her job as a student worker at planetarium presentations. That fits well with astronomy, a science whose history is intertwined with Greek and Roman stories of the gods. Bovee, who first trained on the old projection equipment, said she is amazed by the sophistication of the new simulator.

The massive Chronos, which at 1,000 pounds weighs nearly three times the old projector, required the installation of a new elevator to lift it out of its protective cover.

"The College of Science and Engineering is proud to be able to offer this wonderful new, state-of-the-art star projector to give our students and the community an even better learning experience in the planetarium," said David DeGroote, dean of the college. "It is truly awesome," said Williams.

For more information on the St. Cloud State Planetarium,
visit www.stcloudstate.edu/physics/planetarium.asp.

- Marsha Shoemaker

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