Fiske Planetarium, Professor Emeritus Receives $2 Million NASA Grant | Colorado Arts and Sciences Magazine

This grant will be used to produce comprehensive videos of the dome that will inform the public about NASA’s latest science initiatives, including the two upcoming solar eclipses


The University of Colorado Boulder’s Fiske Planetarium and a professor emeritus have won a $2 million grant from NASA to produce videos and distribute them to planetariums around the world.

Douglas Duncan, professor emeritus in the Department of Astrophysical and Planetary Sciences and principal investigator of the project titled “Science Through Shadows: Eclipses and Solar Science, Occultations and Solar System Origins,” will work with John Keller, director of the Fiske Planetarium, to produce videos on the sun, asteroids and NASA missions over the next three and a half years. The videos will be created in both the “full-dome” format used by planetariums and on flat screen, used in libraries, schools and on YouTube.

“This award allows Fiske to continue producing high-quality NASA exploration content that will be shared with millions of audience members at planetariums across the planet,” Keller said.

At the top of the page: Fiske’s videos are now seen around the world (Photo by Casey Cass). Above: Chris Moore (PhDAstro’17), an astrophysicist at Harvard University, holds his shoebox-sized satellite designed to study the sun. The satellite was featured in one of Fiske Planetarium’s previous educational videos.

Duncan says the grant and videos focus on two upcoming solar eclipses, one in October 2023 and the other in April 2024, both of which will cross the United States.

“We’ll be producing videos that show people how to watch eclipses safely, why they should see a total eclipse, and what scientists are learning about the sun from eclipses and spacecraft,” Duncan said.

Keller says that in addition to eclipses, the videos will also feature occultations, where an object in our solar system passes in front of a distant star, creating a shadow.

“Occultations are another important technique used by scientists,” says Keller. “The science-through-shadows project will share with the public the adventure of international occultation campaigns that researchers use to plan spacecraft encounters with asteroids and minor planets.”

Keller adds that researchers use eclipses and occultation to better understand our sun and our solar system. “The accuracy and precision with which we can measure planetary positions and features through stellar occultations surpasses even Hubble or Webb space telescopes,” Keller says.

Another key part of the grant, Duncan says, is reaching audiences that have been “less served or exposed” to science resources. Fiske is therefore partnering with museums in Detroit, Michigan, and Oakland, California, and involving high school students from those areas to help design and produce some of the videos.

Fiske has been producing videos since 2015, when it remodeled and added digital video production capabilities, including a new staff member to produce videos.

“Our idea was that any faculty member at CU could use Fiske and work with us to support their classes with stunning 360-degree video – full dome,” says Duncan, who ran the Fiske Planetarium from 2002 to 2018.” Not just astronomy, it could be geology, art, etc. But then we went beyond campus, and in 2015 we won our first NASA grant to produce and distribute videos to other planetariums.

Since then, Fiske has created videos on many topics, including how satellites measure groundwater, how scientists discover new worlds, the New Horizons spacecraft flying over Pluto, the Parker solar probe flying towards the sun, moon rocks , miniature satellites and climate change. The videos have been seen in over 260 planetariums around the world.

“Our videos show the wide variety of things NASA does — not just Mars and Hubble — that benefit us here on Earth, and they’re also designed to get students interested in space-related careers,” Duncan says. “Space is one of Colorado’s most important industries, and CU is one of the top universities for space missions and NASA funding.”

Duncan says the first video produced at Fiske shows how NASA satellites can tell how much water is underground by detecting the slight difference in mass and therefore gravity that is seen in wet soil versus dry soil. .

Our videos show the wide variety of things NASA does — not just Mars and Hubble — that benefit us here on earth, and they’re also designed to get students interested in space-related careers.

“As California grapples with drought conditions, NASA can tell them how severe the drought is, not just in visible reservoirs,” Duncan said. “Of course, water is important to people everywhere. So we tell stories about how NASA data can help us on earth.

Another video shows how satellites are miniaturized and features CU Boulder alumnus Chris Moore, who now works as an astrophysicist at Harvard University, and his shoebox-sized satellite designed to study the sun. .

Duncan says the videos have received “very positive” feedback.

“Small and medium-sized planetariums, which is most of them, don’t have the budget or the staff to produce their own videos,” he says.

Keller adds, “Drawing on the subject matter expertise found in CU Boulder and the Front Range, Fiske is well known for producing high-quality, accessible content for the planetarium community.”

“CU is known as a leader in science education and communication,” says Duncan. “For example, our free science education applets at PhET have been used over a billion times. This grant allows us to use our expertise to engage audiences around the world.”

Arline J. Mercier