Preparing for launch: SFCC planetarium hopes to reopen to the public soon with new projector, solar system model

It has been nearly two years since the Spokane Falls Community College Planetarium was temporarily closed to the public due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

During this period, NASA launched and landed both the Perseverance rover and the Ingenuity helicopter at Jezero Crater on Mars. The past year has also seen progress for space tourism, with SpaceX’s Inspiration4 making the first ever crewed orbital mission to space without professional astronauts on board, the launch of billionaire Richard Branson via Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin flights. which included Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, actor William Shatner and former NFL star Michael Strahan as passengers.

Particularly between Mars exploration missions and NASA’s Artemis 1 lunar orbital mission, interest in space science has taken off, said Michele Moore and John Whitmer, co-directors of the SFCC planetarium.

“There are things happening, so you get that more pop interest,” Moore said. “These are precisely the people that John and I would like to reach in terms of space science education.”

Moore and Whitmer, who resumed in-person classes at the planetarium in the winter 2021 term, hope to restart public presentations this spring.

Once they return, returning visitors may notice the planetarium’s new $152,400 projector that replaced the dual projector system used since the facility opened with the college’s new Science Building in 2011. he old setup used two projectors that displayed images on two hemispheres through the ceiling, which was sometimes evident due to a visible seam in the imagery.

Comparatively, the new system is a direct upgrade to laser technology, Whitmer said. Moore said the projector was funded by an innovation grant provided by the SFCC campus and the President’s Council.

“It was always a challenge to keep the bulbs and the stitching in sync and try to get as clean of an image as possible,” Whitmer said. “It takes all that away. It’s just day and night. »

Prior to March 2020, the planetarium hosted up to four to seven public shows a week in addition to college astronomy classes, Moore said. She and Whitmer take particular pride in their K-12 presentations, as they’ve also hosted shows for birthday parties, senior centers, donor events and marriage proposals.

The SFCC Planetarium is in a class of its own in the area. Washington State University also has a planetarium on the Pullman campus. The closest is Columbia Basin College in Pasco, Moore said.

Eastern Washington University’s George Stahl Planetarium was decommissioned a few years ago, though the university plans to remodel the facility along with the rest of the science building over the next two years using funding from the state, EWU spokesman Dave Meany said.

Although public shows are suspended at this time, the SFCC Planetarium is still being used as an in-person classroom for college Astronomy 100 and 101 courses, albeit with COVID-19 capacity restrictions. The 52-seat planetarium is limited to 24 students, Whitmer said.

While Moore and Whitmer hope to reopen the planetarium for public viewing this spring, it’s a bit of a moving target.

“Best-case scenario is possible,” Whitmer said. “I can see later in the spring. If the cases go down and the governor lifts the mask mandate, then I think that could happen.

Gov. Jay Inslee said last week he could announce this week when the state will lift the indoor mask mandate. Asked about Inslee’s announcement, Moore said she and Whitmer couldn’t say if the facility could open before April.

In the meantime, the two are eager to install a model of the solar system which, due to scale, is expected to span approximately 1,600 feet across campus.

The $35,000 1-10 billion scale model will feature models of planets and entities on metal poles with information panels spaced out at the appropriate scale. The model will stretch from the sun (about the size of a softball) to a corner of the science building in Pluto towards the soccer field.

“It’s still considered a dwarf planet, but everyone knows Pluto, so we included it in the model,” Whitmer said.

Whitmer said he and his students have set up similar, albeit smaller and temporary, models in the past.

“It’s quite impressive,” he said. “It’s just styrofoam and little balls, but I often get feedback at the end of term that was the most impactful thing we did all term to see how far these tiny little ones planets are far away. It really makes you feel like you belong in the solar system. It puts things into perspective.”

The Voyage’s scale solar system will be a replica of the one in the National Mall in Washington DC, Moore said. Once installed, the model could be used by disciplines other than astronomy, she said.

Other faculty members agree. Pete Wildman, who chairs the math department at SFCC, said the concept of proportional reasoning is explored in a few math classes.

“One of these activities references the model of the solar system in the National Mall in Washington DC. And having one on campus would make this project more real for students,” Wildman said in a statement. “It would also enhance other aspects of the course and develop additional activities to enrich students’ understanding of proportionality.”

Providing the community with even more opportunities, like the Voyage model, is great for Spokane Falls Community College “to be the school for space science in Spokane,” Moore said.

“Helping to bring space science to the relevance of our K-12 learning community will be great,” she said.

“We also think it’s ideal for regular recruitment. If you’re coming to a college campus and there’s something to do, you can’t go wrong. It really lends itself to, ‘oh, yeah, they do a bunch of space stuff at SFCC.’ ”

Arline J. Mercier