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Planetarium lights up the night sky

By Alexandra Mathieu

May 12, 2009 10:54 p.m.

 Every Wednesday night, Bruins may witness stars and constellations that may otherwise be invisible to the unaided eye in Los Angeles.

Such a spectacle can be seen at the UCLA Planetarium, where two UCLA student volunteer coordinators ““ Ian Crossfield and Kevin Hainline ““ organize weekly showings of what lies beyond.

They take their visitors to the eighth floor of the Math Sciences Building on campus. The shows begin at 8 p.m. and welcome a crowd of mostly students.

Approximately 1,000 people every quarter attend the shows offered by the planetarium, said Crossfield, an astronomy graduate student.

Crossfield and Hainline are the main coordinators, managing the division of the work between themselves and the others who volunteer to help host the shows.

After having graduated from Harvey Mud College as a physics major, Hainline is now a third-year graduate student in the astronomy department. He said that as a graduate student, most of his time ““ aside from the planetarium shows ““ is spent conducting research.

“My current research is in star forming galaxies, and I am particularly interested in how galaxies evolved. … And so I study galaxies that are very far away and very young,” Hainline said.

Hainline recently finished a paper on this topic and started further research. In the future, he intends to teach more than conduct research.

Crossfield received his master’s degree in astronomy at UCLA and will be graduating in 2012 with his doctorate. He said his interests lie in the domain of exoplanet development and extrasolar planets.

Both Crossfield’s and Hainline’s responsibilities consist of satisfying and organizing the numerous requests for private shows made by school groups and others. They have to ensure the quality and regularity of their weekly public shows.

According to Hainline, the planetarium, which was completed in 1957, is currently planning to incorporate a new computer and another projector for slide shows.

With other graduate students’ input, Crossfield and Hainline decide what improvements in technology are worthy of an investment. Once these decisions are made, financial management comes into play with the supervision of Laurie Liles, the astronomy department administrator.

Special features during the shows are organized by school groups. They occur at different hours and allow the program to reach members of the broader Los Angeles community.

“We have a half-hour astronomy talk on some current topic of interest in astronomy, and then we have a half-hour star show using the star projector,” Crossfield said.

The star projector shows what the sky looks like in ideal conditions, projecting constellations on the dome of the planetarium. The projection selection is flexible, ranging from showing what the sky looked like in the past to what it will look like in the future, and what it looks like from different locations such as the North Pole.

After the hour of talk with slide-show support and the star projection, a telescope show takes place if the sky is clear.

UCLA astronomy Professor Matthew Malkan provides an extra credit incentive for his students to attend the highly recommended viewing, emphasizing its value in understanding concepts such as the motion of celestial fields.

Malkan said that the planetarium presentations help students see the concepts discussed in class in a more clear and concrete way.

He added that only a minority of students, averaging one out of four, follow his advice.

Crossfield and Hainline have adapted and presented the topics in a way that is accessible for attendees of all levels.

“The material was very basic and the instructor was very good at explaining it in such a manner that you didn’t need a background knowledge to understand,” said Nicole McIntyre, a first-year cognitive science student who attended a presentation.

Crossfield said the planetarium develops curiosity about the vastness of the universe and how people relate to the cosmos.

“Astronomy has the potential for taking a few steps to answer (these question),” Crossfield said.

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Alexandra Mathieu
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