by Debra Johnson, Published August 01, 2012
YPSILANTI - It's easy for someone to enter Eastern's Planetarium and think the room is kind of cool. But, when the lights go down and the dome illuminates - a virtual universe appears. The room appears to expand 10 times in size and you feel "transported" into outer space.
As one of many events happening during the 2012 Ypsilanti Heritage Festival, Eastern's planetarium will debut the movie "Stars," Saturday, Aug. 18. Show times are 7:30 p.m. and 9 p.m. And unlike what is seen overhead, space at this event is limited to 40 people per show.
The planetarium, located in the new Mark Jefferson Science Complex, features a 28 foot-diameter futuristic-looking sphere suspended four stories above the ground. The space is used as a classroom serving more than 450 students studying astronomy each semester.
During Saturday's event, astronomy aficionados will be treated to a galactic experience where black holes, pulsars, and other celestial facts will be discussed. You will learn how the sun works, planets are born, and chemical elements are made, just to name a few.
Norbert Vance, professor of astronomy and observatory director at Eastern, accompanied by members of EMU's astronomy club, will host the event and be on hand to answer questions about the movie, the planetarium and all its features.
At 10 p.m., Vance will conduct a guided tour of the historic observatory located in Sherzer Hall. Hopeful of a clear night, stargazers will be able to observe "real" stars through the large apochromatic refractor telescope on the rooftop of the building.
Vance said sky viewers should be able to see Saturn's rings, various star clusters, binary stars, dying stars and constellations of the summer sky.
"We've been accused of putting a fake image at the end of the tube when it comes to Saturn... but we assure people that it's the real deal," says Vance. "The most difficult idea to convey is the sense of distance and size. It can take a couple hours for the light we see to reach us even within the solar system. And it takes years for our spacecraft to reach places like Saturn even moving at tremendous speeds. Yet the folks at NASA that design and execute these missions almost make the effort look easy."
The planetarium opened in January 2011 with a state-of-the-art facility for educating students in astronomy as part of the University's major renovation of the Mark Jefferson Science Complex. Through projections of the night sky, scenes of stars, planets, comets and other celestial objects can be made to appear and move realistically to simulate the complex motions of the universe.
These amazing scenes are produced using computer and fish-eye projection technologies linked together which provide an accurate relative motion of the sky. The sophisticated system can display the sky at any point in time, deep into the past or well into the future, as it would appear from any point on Earth or even from many of the moons and planets of our solar system.
EMU's astronomy program started with humble beginnings - a 4-inch Alvan Clark refractor telescope, given to the University from the citizens of Ypsilanti in 1878. Through the years, and two disasters (including a tornado in 1893 and fire in 1989), Sherzer Observatory reopened in September 1991. A secondary dome was installed in 2001, housing a Celestron Nexstar 8" telescope and imaging hardware that can be operated from the comfort of a control room below. A variety of other portable telescopes, from 14 inches to 8 inches of aperture, rounds out the current inventory available to students and staff.
The planetarium and observatory are part of the Department of Physics and Astronomy through the College of Arts and Sciences at EMU. For more information, visit the EMU Astronomy and Physics Program homepage.
The Heritage Festival runs Friday, Aug. 17 through Sunday, Aug. 19 and features numerous activities and events for the whole family. The Festival attracts nearly 100,000 visitors from southeast Michigan who come to celebrate Ypsilanti's heritage. For a complete list of events, visit the 2012 Ypsilanti Heritage Festival homepage.