There is one place where JMU students can see a star-filled night sky no matter what time of day, but many have never gotten inside. The state-of-the-art John C. Wells Planetarium is located inside Miller Hall.
âThis is one of the most beautiful representations of the night sky that I have ever seen, and I am an optical astronomer,â said Geary Albright, professor of physics and astronomy and director of the planetarium. “I’ve seen better in real life on top of the mountains of Arizona and the Canary Islands etc, but in terms of a small planetarium like this it’s exceptional.”
JMU’s original planetarium, built in 1979, was located at Burruss Hall. Albright said it fell into disrepair and was finally renovated in 2007 when it was moved to Miller Hall and converted back to the John C. Wells Planetarium. Wells was the head of the physics department at JMU from 1955 to 1974 and the planetarium’s first curator.
The $ 2 million renovation includes a video system that displays full dome images sharper than HDTV and an opto-mechanical star projection system that can display the night sky as it appears anywhere. what a night 50,000 years ago or ahead. Visitors can see what the night sky looks like at summer solstice, winter solstice, or even on their birthdays.
Albright has been the director of the planetarium for four years, which means that for almost half of his tenure, the planetarium was closed due to COVID-19.
âWe are still closed because there are no elementary school children who are vaccinated,â Albright said. âSince it’s supposed to be a vaccinated bubble, bringing in people who at least half or more aren’t vaccinatedâ¦ We’re just not taking the risk. “
The last year it was open full time, the 2018-19 school year, the planetarium hosted over 200 school groups and 10,000 students. Open to the public in the pre-pandemic era, it attracted all ages, from young children to nursing home residents.
One of the planetarium’s most popular offerings is its ‘Saturday Shows’, where a movie is shown and followed by a half hour of ‘Chat with the Stars’. During the discussions about the stars, Albright said he or a student employee spoke to the audience about the stars, planets and constellations displayed through the dome. These interviews are full of stories from astrology, mythology and science.
âIt’s fun playing the part of a storyteller,â Albright said. “The beauty of mythology is that we are talking about some of the greatest stories people have ever imagined.”
Albright said he doesn’t know when the planetarium will reopen to the public. For now, he said, they are “just waiting.”
While the planetarium is still closed to the public, the 300 JMU students who take classes in the planetarium still experience it every week. This is a major incentive for students to enroll in astronomy as one of their general education courses; Albright said it appears astronomy classes are “in high demand” by JMU students.
Sometimes, he said, he’s not even aware that enrollment has started when he starts receiving emails saying his astronomy classes are full. While some students may sign up because they think it’s easy credit with a cool class location, Albright said, he finds that many of them are getting valuable lesson experience.
âWe spent quite a bit of time identifying things in the night sky,â Albright said. “The point is, once you learn it, you sort of know it for the rest of your life.”
Emily Ryan, a junior kinesiology student, had her first experience at the planetarium during Family Weekend, her freshman year, when she visited with her parents. Ryan recently added a minor in astronomy to her degree so she could see what else the planetarium has to offer.
“I really wanted to know more aboutâ¦ the stars [and] galaxiesâ¦ learn more about everything out there, âRyan said.
While some take astronomy classes to explore the planetarium, a few JMU students instead find part-time employment there, helping to organize shows and lead tour groups.
âIt was a great job for the undergraduates,â Albright said. “It’s not an internship, but it is like that – you gain valuable experience.”
Without any tour group at the moment, there isn’t much for student workers to do. Albright said he currently only has one student, Tiffany Rutledge, who works with him at the planetarium.
Rutledge (’21), the planetarium’s graduate assistant, started working there in January 2020, just two months before the COVID-19 shutdown.
âI was supposed to put on my first show the weekend after we got back from spring break, which we never came back to,â Rutledge said, âso I never got to do my first solo show.â
Rutledge still helps the planetarium by managing its Facebook page. She posts night sky news daily, encouraging people to come out and gaze at the stars.
While some students may never get the chance to take a course or work in the planetarium, Albright said the opportunity to learn is open to everyone.
âThere is so much in education that cannot be measured,â Albright said. “If you are here thinking and meditating on the wonders of the universe and how amazing it is, I feel like it has a lot of value.”
Contact Haley Huchler at [email protected] To learn more about the culture, arts and lifestyle of the JMU and Harrisonburg communities, follow the culture office on Twitter and Instagram @Breeze_Culture.