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John C. Wells Planetarium

Let's Go To A Planetarium
Immerse yourself in an astronomical experience at the JMU Planetarium

Written by
Rebekah Carter
The News Leader
Sept. 27, 2012

Reprinted with permission of The News Leader, Staunton, Va.

HARRISONBURG — Immerse yourself in astronomy, physics and a realistic simulation of the motions of the heavens at the John C. Wells Planetarium at James Madison University.

This theater, which offers a total-immersion-in-space-experience, is available at only three other planetariums in the United States.

Reopening in 2008 after a 1.3 million renovation, the planetarium is a $1.5 million state-of-the-art hybrid planetarium, presenting cutting-edge science films on a full-dome in 5.1 surround sound and a Goto Chronos star projector.

The projector is an opto-mechanical device, allowing the facility to project an authentic night sky on the dome.

The planetarium also projects planets, constellations and the Milky Way galaxy.

On the campus of James Madison University, the planetarium showcases a large meteorite collection and invites members of the public to learn more about meteorites and the important clues they hold.

As a NASA Space Place member, the facility displays some of the outstanding science being carried out by NASA's fleet of space-based observatories that are revolutionizing our understanding the universe.

Brandy Somers, 31, of Harrisonburg, has visited the JMU planetarium on several occasions, and this mother and high school teacher was smitten by her experience.

Taking along her 10-year-old son and 7-year-old daughter, Somers viewed the planetarium's animation about how Orion's Belt was named.

"The kids were thoroughly entertained and I think they really enjoyed being encompassed by the screen," she said.

The presentation began with Shanil Virani, planetarium director, giving an informative introduction about public events, like star parties that are free and kid-friendly. Somers said the presentation compelled her to sign up for one of Virani's astronomy classes.

"The planetarium and many of its events are great options for families and couples, especially those on a budget, because it's free," she said.

Jen Rose, a 34-year-old middle school English teacher at Skyline Middle School in Harrisonburg, has been visiting the JMU Planetarium since she was a student at JMU years ago.

"I make a point of taking my students to the planetarium for field trips and my family and I are also regular visitors of the planetarium for the free movies and star talks on the weekend," said Rose.

She recently brought a group of middle and high school poetry students to a private star talk at the planetarium who were part of a program called Poet-in-the-Schools, a program which inspires young writers in Harrisonburg City Public Schools to explore reading, writing and performing poetry.

"Shanil Virani, the director of the planetarium, gave the students a phenomenal star talk. If you're lucky enough to get Shanil as your star talk lecturer, you'll soon learn how excited he is about the night sky," Rose said.

She said that Virani connected with her young students and helped them to come up with great ideas for original space poems.

"The kids love that moment when the room falls into complete darkness and the stars and planets suddenly appear. They are always excited to learn about the constellations and Greek mythology."

Rose said that she and her fiance regularly bring their 8-year-old to the planetarium's weekend movies and star talks and the the planetarium us also a regular visit for her out-of-town guests.

"The movies appeal to both young kids and adults, and the star talks are often given by JMU students studying both science and education, so they are skilled at delivering really engaging talks to kids and answering all their questions," she said.

"The JMU staff and students who work at the Planetarium are incredibly kind and welcoming. As a teacher, it is one of my favorite places to bring students. They never forget it."

Special events at the planetarium this fall include a keynote presentation by Phil Plait, the "Bad Astronomer," and a monthly star party on the last Friday of each month beginning Friday, where several telescopes are set up and members of the public are invited to come on campus and view the moon, planets, star clusters and other objects throughout the night.

Public shows at 2:30 and 3:30 p.m. Saturdays are free throughout the JMU school year.

Seats are on a first-come, first-seated basis.

The 2:30 p.m. show is a family-friendly feature where the full dome movie is perfectly suited for families with young children.

The 3:30 p.m. show is the feature presentation, where they present a full-dome movie about cutting-edge astronomy and other discoveries.

Following each full-dome show, the star ball that is used to project the Shenandoah Valley night-time sky on the dome is used. Authentic recreation of the night-time sky displays stars and planets and identifies constellations that are visible that evening to visitors.

The planetarium has nearly 20 full-dome shows in its inventory and each show is followed by a star talk about what people can see in the night sky in the Harrisonburg area.