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Stars shine on South Campus

By Vanda Farahmand

March 8, 2005 9:00 p.m.

Though star-gazing is a near impossibility in Los Angeles due to
the bright city lights, there is one place where students and the
L.A. community can go to see the stars in the night sky: the UCLA
planetarium, which offers both telescope viewing and special topic

Every Wednesday, the UCLA planetarium holds free special topic
shows, where graduate students, post doctorates and faculty members
discuss not only the current night sky and constellations, but also
presentations on specific astronomical topics.

“I think the planetarium shows are invaluable in terms of
benefits for both the astronomy student-presenters and the
community in general,” said Emily Rice, a UCLA graduate
student and the planetarium co-coordinator. “It is enjoyable
for me when people seem interested in it and ask me questions

Tonight’s special topic show will be “Life in Our
Solar System,” which will lead viewers through some of the
most probable places where humans can find life or the remnants of
life in the solar system, including such promising areas as Mars
and Jupiter’s ice-crusted moon, Europa.

“I hope the students that watch my show not only learn
about our solar system, but consider what types of environments are
hospitable for life, and think more about the reality of the
universe,” said Michael McElwain, a UCLA astronomy graduate
student who developed the special topic show.

Some of the special topic shows include “Life in the
Universe,” “A Tour of the Solar System and
Beyond” and “The Hubble Reborn,” developed by
NASA’s Hubble Outreach and Education team.

The planetarium shows are run mainly by graduate students in the
UCLA Department of Physics and Astronomy.

Though graduate students who are teaching assistants for
astronomy classes are required to give at least one show during the
quarter they are teaching, the other slots are filled by graduate
students or faculty who volunteer to give the shows.

“The planetarium is a great campus resource for teaching
students about astronomy. A simulated, interactive display of the
night sky is excellent for a relatively quick explanation of many
concepts,” McElwain said.

“You can rotate through an entire day in a few minutes,
and then travel to the Southern Hemisphere where the constellations
are completely different.”

The planetarium shows include a glimpse of what the stars over
UCLA would look like without the city lights via a star projector;
views of some of the prominent constellations, trips to the
hemispheres, and a view of the Milky Way.

The show concludes with a special topic presentation, which
changes from week to week.

Seth Hornstein, a UCLA astronomy graduate student and the former
planetarium coordinator, pointed to the benefits of having
different topics each week.

“It also allows people who are interested to come back to
more than one planetarium show and learn something new each
time,” he said.

“Anytime I have heard that someone has come back to
another planetarium show just to hear a different special topic
show makes me very proud of the shows.”

In addition to these public planetarium shows, several private
planetarium shows are held each quarter as well

“Many of our intro astronomy courses use the planetarium
for teaching astronomy concepts. So not only does the public
benefit from the planetarium, but our students do as well,”
Hornstein said.

In addition to the planetarium shows held by the graduate
students, there are telescope viewings as well after the special
topic presentations, which are conducted by undergraduate students
in the Undergraduate Astronomy Society on clear nights.

Attendees are able to look through department telescopes and
view different planets, star clusters and other celestial objects,
depending on the clarity of the sky and which objects are currently
in the sky.

The UCLA planetarium, run by the physics and astronomy
department, finished construction in 1957.

Though some improvements need to be made to the UCLA
planetarium, such as either the repair of or acquisition of a new
star projector to replace the current, 1973 model, the planetarium
shows serve as a tool to educate both UCLA students and the
community who are interested in learning more about the stars and
possibly explore the topics presented in the shows.

“Planetarium shows are also an opportunity for (graduate)
students to share what interests them about astronomy with the
public,” Rice said.

For more information, visit

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Vanda Farahmand
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