As viewers take their first “flight” to Mars, Dr. Gary Henson often notes the audible gasps that fill the room.
“It’s worth investing in full dome technology,” he said.
An associate professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy, Henson is the director of East Tennessee State University’s Planetarium, a spacious theater capable of stunning visuals thanks to a state-of-the-art full-dome digital projection system.
The planetarium plays an important role on the ETSU campus, as well as in the region, according to a university press release.
“Our goal is to be able to provide the most authentic and realistic views of objects and simulations of scientific concepts and phenomena – not just limited to astronomy – to increase engagement, understanding and appreciation of scientific knowledge by students and the wider public community who experience programming in the planetarium,” Henson said.
Hundreds of students regularly use space during three student-level astronomy courses offered each fall and spring semester, according to the release.
“Many students come to our astronomy-themed science classes already excited about their experiences with the images released by NASA, the ongoing exploration of the solar system like Mars rovers, the abundance of science films -space fiction and even video games,” Henson said. “For science, students can grow a plant, mix chemicals, or smash a rock in the ‘real’ world of a science lab.
“However, they may not be able to see clear dark skies and they certainly cannot travel to the moon or Mars or fly around the solar system,” he continued. “And even in our rural East Tennessee region, air pollution, light pollution, and weather conditions limit the opportunities for most people to experience a true night sky. Such experiences can only be gained through computer simulations and animations which should be as realistic as possible.
Over the years, ETSU has hosted dozens of organizations. Presentations can be tailored to the needs of a group and are offered free of charge to local schools.
The tradition of public engagement continues this semester, according to the release.
On April 21, the university will present a full-dome video program titled “Out There, The Quest for Extrasolar Planets.” On May 12, another video program will be broadcast titled “From Earth to the Universe”. Both shows start at 7 p.m. and last about an hour.
Thanks to a $75,000 renovation funded by the ETSU Technology Access Fee program in 2014, according to the release, the planetarium sports a unique fisheye lens projection system and astronomy software. The university also repainted the dome and installed new flooring and seating.
Located on the top floor of Hutcheson Hall on South Dossett Drive, seating in the planetarium is limited to 45 on a first-come, first-served basis.