Mobile Planetarium Draws Stargazers to ONRC

On Saturday, May 4, the Olympic Natural Resources Center (ONRC) hosted an astronomy program for the local community, including an afternoon session for families and younger children, and then an evening session for youth and adults.

The main attraction was a mobile planetarium, which looked like a big black igloo from the outside. Three doctoral students from the University of Washington’s Astronomy Department brought the instrument out to the ONRC campus to offer an immersive experience to participants, who were able to view galaxies billions of light years from Earth.

Mobile Planetarium

Members of the mobile planetarium team at the UW Astronomy Department. Doctoral student Phil Rosenfield, standing back left, was one of the three graduate students who came to ONRC for the event.

About 175 people attended the program throughout the day, and the afternoon session included five rotations in the planetarium. While one group was in the planetarium, another group walked a graphical representation of the solar system on the sidewalk outside the administration building, giving folks a tangible sense of the distances between planets.

Later, the evening program kicked off with a one-hour presentation about current thinking in astronomy and a capsule look at cutting-edge research at UW. The doctoral students offered an opportunity for each person to be a citizen scientist and provide help with sorting through the images coming from the Hubble Space Telescope they use in their research. Planetarium showings and solar system walks followed until dark. Then the students set up a high-grade telescope that allowed folks to view planets, including Saturn, up close and personal.

“The enthusiasm of the three students was infectious and inspired people to think very differently and more expansively as they gazed at the heavens,” says Ellen Matheny, education and outreach director for ONRC.

Astronomy Presentation

One of the evening astronomy presentations.

This month is particularly rich with chances to view other planets, and Jupiter, Venus and Mercury will all be visible at various times. In fact, on May 26, those three planets will form a compact cluster in the sky, all visible through binoculars or a telescope about a half-hour after sunset—so mark your calendars for a planetary bonanza!

Funding for the event was provided by the Rosmond Forestry Education Fund, an endowment established at ONRC to provide quality programs on forestry and other scientific topics for the regional community. The astronomy students enjoyed the program so much they said they’d like to organize a similar event next spring. Community members seemed equally impressed.

“Many people approached me during the day with thanks to ONRC for putting this program together,” says Matheny. “The most common comment was, ‘Let’s have more of these events!’”

Photo of mobile planetarium © Mary Levin; photo of astronomy presentation © Ellen Matheny.