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Planetarium beginning to show its age

By Diana Whitaker

May 26, 2005 9:00 p.m.

Working on ways to update an integral facility, graduate
students and professors in the astronomy program at UCLA are
actively fund-raising for a building that is becoming increasingly
in need of repair.

Offering free shows to students every week, the UCLA planetarium
has been a valuable tool, educating UCLA students and the
surrounding community since its construction was finished in 1957.
Since then, the building has housed three different star
projectors, each successive one increasing in cost with new

“The building’s interior is in need of renovation,
especially the seats and the flooring,” said Alaina Henry, a
UCLA astronomy graduate student. “The equipment also needs to
be repaired or replaced with all the new technology
available,” she said.

The planetarium’s last major upgrade was in 1973, which
included the purchase of the current sky projector, Viewlex Mark
IIA. This projector was state-of-the-art at the time, with its
coverage of the entire celestial sphere, projecting about 4,000
stars on the dome’s ceiling.

Star projectors recreate the night sky in a larger-than-life
presentation, by showing many stars that are otherwise impossible
to see in Los Angeles due to light pollution. Light pollution is
the effect of the bright city lights that prevent the visibility of
fainter stars.

The projector also has other capabilities, such as
“looking at winter constellations during the summer and other
seasonal constellations at any time of the year,” said Emily
Rice, a UCLA graduate student and planetarium coordinator. In a
sense, one can travel the world while remaining in one of the 51
seats in the planetarium with the projector’s ability of
generating the night sky from any perspective on earth.

Though the current projector has such capabilities, the effects
of aging have taken their toll. The sky projector is missing
essential components, including moon and planet projection. Aging
parts on the control panel and computer projection for multimedia
shows also need to be replaced.

Recently, a consulting company that works with the company that
built the planetarium evaluated costly maintenance repairs.

“Private donations are always welcome,” said Karen
Peterson, another UCLA graduate student and planetarium
coordinator. “It would be wonderful to associate the name of
a substantial donor with the planetarium,” added Rice.
Despite the need for repairs, the planetarium still attracts many
people in the community. Shows are given at 8 p.m. every Wednesday
during the fall, winter and spring quarters of the UCLA academic

Many show topics are available in the planetarium’s
library. Two of the most popular topics are “Life in the
Universe,” and “A Tour of the Solar System and
Beyond,” written by UCLA graduate students. The planetary
staff hopes to expand the variety of topics and update shows with
new research findings.

On clear nights, following the hour-long shows, visitors can
look through one of the department telescopes at a variety of
celestial objects currently in the sky, such as planets, nebulae,
and star clusters.

Public shows are available to all students, the Los Angeles
community, and educational groups. An introductory astronomy course
requires a lab where the students watch one of the planetarium

Private viewings are available upon request, where the
show’s topics and its duration can be tailored to the
audience’s requests.

One recent group of visitors consisted of pre-schoolers, who
were interested in learning more about the galaxy. The show
included basics of astronomy, including the properties of planets
and the distance between the earth and the stars. “We also
had to comfort those who were afraid of the dark,” said
Peterson, who has done several shows for groups of younger

The topics of public shows change every week to keep attracting
an audience, which provides an incentive for the funding for the
planetarium’s maintenance.

New visitors are always encouraged to see shows at the
convenient location on the eighth floor of the Math Sciences

More information can be found on the department’s Web

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Diana Whitaker
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