Eastern Michigan's new spherical classroom will bring out the stars

by Ward Mullens, Published August 04, 2010

YPSILANTI - The Eastern Michigan University Department of Astronomy and Physics is preparing to have a ball in a room that will bring out the stars!

Mark Jefferson Dome

The ball is a sphere-shaped classroom in the new science complex that will be used as a planetarium.
"We're getting a lot of questions when people walk by it," said James Carroll, head of the department of physics and astronomy, of the planet-shaped classroom taking shape on the north end of the complex.

"There will be a room inside the sphere," Carroll said.  "That room will be a classroom, a planetarium and a science education facility all rolled into one room."

The inside of the sphere will create a dome that is 28 feet in diameter and the room will feature 37 reclining seats, controlled lighting and full 360-degree projection. It also will have a Smartboard, microphones and sound system, according to Carroll.

The unique design will allow audiences to view celestial events and far away worlds as if they were seeing them in the sky.

"This facility is not your daddy's planetarium- there is no fixed star ball at the center," said Norbert Vance, professor of astronomy. "In fact, the term (planetarium) is rather out of favor, the room is essentially a round theatre. The system allows us to travel anywhere the software allows us to go...the surface of Mars, in orbit around Saturn, even out among the nearby stars looking back towards our solar system."

"Plus, I don't have to concern myself with the weather," Vance said of the facility. "It can be ten below outside and we'll be cozy in our journeys. There is no limit to what our imaginations can develop for such a device."
The Department has raised $55,000 so far to purchase the planetarium projector. Carroll said another $45,000 is needed for the planetarium shows and the lighting and audio system.

"The shows alone cost about $3,000 each," Carroll said of the pre-packaged software that planetarium will use.
Eventually, Carroll said that he hopes EMU will produce original shows for the planetarium, partnering with departments in the College of Arts and Sciences on the production of the shows and departments in the College of Business for the marketing of the shows.

"We also want to offer more than just a planetarium to the public," Carroll said. "We want this facility to complement Sherzer Observatory."

Carroll said that few planetariums in the area offer an observatory and a planetarium in the same place.

"We can pair it (the planetarium) with Sherzer Observatory and really make the experience worth the trip for school children," Carroll said. "They can learn about astronomy in the planetarium and then go to the observatory to see the real thing."

The facility also will make it worth the trip for EMU students who want to teach astronomy.

"This will give our graduates that added dimension of being prepared to use such a room," said Vance. "Some schools have closed their planetariums simply because they lacked staff with experience in operating one."
The details are still being worked out, but Carroll said that the facility would be used for classes Monday-Thursday and then for public outreach Friday-Sunday.

"It's going to be a very unique setting," Carroll said. "We are excited."

No date has been set for the opening of the EMU planetarium, but the New Science Complex is scheduled for completion this fall.


Ward Mullens

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