Revitalized Planetarium Involves Viewers In Latest Space Exploration

Published on March 2, 2015  

Samford University’s Christenberry Planetarium presented a special program on the European Space Agency’s recent Rosetta comet mission in February as part of the facility’s ongoing expansion of programming, technical upgrades and community engagement (see video above).

Rosetta’s Philae lander became the first man-made object to land on a comet in November 2014, capturing the attention of many who have never found an interest in physics or space exploration. Christenberry Planetarium director David Weigel hopes his original shows will do the same. The goal, Weigel said, is “to get as large a population as possible as excited as possible about science.”

Weigel debuted software and hardware upgrades in fall 2014, including a new high-definition projector that provides a dramatic improvement in image quality over the old system. Specialized new mirrors match the projected image to the curvature of the planetarium’s screen.

The new technology allows Weigel to not only create an original show, but also control it in real time to create an interactive audience experience. If someone has a question, Weigel can steer the projected image to address that interest. In effect, each original Christenberry Planetarium show is unique to its audience.

“We are coming up with new and exciting shows about space that further test the boundaries of the software,” Weigel said. Even before the Rosetta showings were complete Weigel was looking ahead to NASA’s March mission to orbit Ceres, a massive asteroid or dwarf planet. Weigel hopes to complete a Ceres show based on the NASA data soon after the Dawn spacecraft reaches its target March 6.

While the planetarium still features seasonal Alabama Night Skies shows throughout the year as well as the popular Star of Bethlehem show, Weigel said open-source software and data freely available from space agencies have revolutionized what planetaria—and even hobbyists--can create. “Science is not unobtainable,” he said. “If you love it, it’s right at your fingertips.”

All Christenberry Planetarium shows are free of charge and open to the public.

The next Alabama Spring Skies show–"Astronomy 101"– will be held Thursday, March 26 at 8 p.m. and Saturday, March 28 at 4:30 p.m. The "Dawn of Ceres" show is tentatively set for Thursday, April 23 at 8 p.m. and Saturday, April 25 at 4:30 p.m.

For complete planetarium schedules and physics news, visit Christenberry Planetarium at Samford University on Facebook.