Bringing the Universe to the University

The Jim and Linda Lee Planetarium

by Eric Edelman, Planetarium Director, The Jim and Linda Lee Planetarium

Over the past year and a half, more than 28,000 individuals have enjoyed the opportunity to lean back and experience the cosmos up close in ways beyond their imagination. If not for the only Northern Arizona facility of its kind – the Jim and Linda Lee Planetarium on the Prescott campus of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University – that experience could not happen. (Editor’s note: the Planetarium reached 30,000 visitors the week of May 20, 2019)

Our dome is 47 feet in diameter, or in other words, the average length of an adult humpback whale. With a digital projection system on that whale-sized dome, we are able to bring the universe to Prescott in crisp and clear 4k resolution. Here at Embry-Riddle, we have collected and developed many presentations specifically for visitors to the dome.

In January of 2018, we opened the planetarium to the public, debuting the first of our four part seasonal series about the night sky of Prescott. These shows display the Universe that is visible to us from our Prescott location over the course of the entire year. Through the use of cutting-edge scientific visualization tools available to us with this facility, we projected the stars, planets, and universe to the dome and to the eyes of all those with an interest in their night sky.

Along with our specially curated presentations, we brought some of the most popular planetarium shows released by other production teams from across the globe to our Prescott viewers. The enthusiasm and support we have received from all corners of Prescott and beyond has allowed us to turn this facility into a full-fledged, multi-faceted planetarium operation.

There is much to see and do in 2019. Now in the midst of our 2019 season, we are creating new content not just about what we can see in our skies, but what we are learning about them. For example, January brought a show on the study of exoplanets, distant worlds orbiting stars other than our Sun. We have so many concepts to explore, and we are looking forward to sharing them with all the curious learners out there who step through our doors.

Do you love solar eclipses? Soon we will use the planetarium to allow us to safely view another total solar eclipse in South America this July, an event that would otherwise be impossible to view from our place here in Prescott.

Can you remember Neil Armstrong’s first walk on the moon? To celebrate the 50th anniversary of Neil Armstrong’s first moon walk on July 20, 1969, we will take a dive into the bank of knowledge we have about the different moons in our solar system.

Are you an astronomer? In the fall, we will take a step back with a show that zooms away from our planet to give viewers a sense of the magnificent scale of the visible cosmos.

Is there an under-6 year-old near you? Another fall debut will focus on entertaining the very youngest planetarium fans who will be coming to the dome with a performance made specifically for children under 6 years old.

Do you have an artistic nature underneath that interest in space? Towards the end of the year, we will invite the public to some wonderful musical collaborations with local Prescott talent, mixing the delights of art and science.

Bringing knowledge and space to all – that is our mission. Truly, when it comes to the learners, we are here to support. One of our largest projects is our K-12 STEM Outreach operation, which offers new resources and a different form of learning astronomy to educational groups throughout the area. To that effect, we have created a specialized planetarium show just for school groups which tours the planets in our solar system in a way that encourages students to use their own investigative skills to explore different worlds. Each time we perform this show for a new group, it ends up being just a bit different, because the curiosities, interests, and educational goals of the audience members drive the direction of the story we tell in a significant way.

To date, we’ve had groups from approximately 75 different schools, youth oriented programs such as Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, the YMCA, and even churches come through the Jim and Linda Lee Planetarium. Many of these groups have come back multiple times, with various ages represented. While there have been many visits from local schools and organizations, we’ve also had visitors from across Arizona as well as from Nevada and Washington State. We’ve hosted international guests as well.

In February 2018, our facility hosted the Arizona School for the Deaf and Blind, which brought 60 students from throughout Northern Arizona for a planetarium show and STEM Education Center tour. We arranged to present a modified Tour of the Solar System show that included sign language interpreters to accommodate the needs of their group. The teachers and parents were amazed how their students opened up on this trip. Some students who seldom participated in class were asking great questions and excitedly interacting with others. Afterwards, we took them on a tour of the building and let them experience our 3-D printer lab, learn about cube satellites in our EagleSat Laboratory, and visit our robotics workshops. It was truly an incredible day.

Alongside groups coming to the planetarium from outside the university, multiple departments across the university itself have made use of the planetarium in unique and exciting ways. Due to our digital projection system, we are not limited to just the stars. We can explore concepts outside of astronomy so students across degree programs from Biology, Engineering, Business, Gaming and Simulation Science, and many more can have unique educational experiences underneath the dome.

We also know how to have fun.Our mission to bring knowledge and space to all occupies most of the time inside the planetarium, but we still make sure to simply have fun. Last year, we rented specialized laser light projectors to blast the music of Pink Floyd, U2, Patsy Kline, and others to orchestrated lasers on the dome. On-campus student groups have already brought some of their favorite Star Wars and Harry Potter episodes to the planetarium, and we expect that more fun opportunities are surely ahead of us.

Looking back on our accomplishments so far, it is startling to consider we have been in action for only a year and a half. We look forward to what the next year and a half and beyond will bring. There is so much in store, and we hope you will come along for the experience.

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