Imagine what it would be like to explore an exoplanet, a planet outside our own solar system that could possibly support life just like Earth. Normally such a trip would involve . . . well, it hasn't been done yet.
But visitors to the John C. Wells Planetarium can get a good idea of what they would see on such a journey.
"You can fly to them, you can orbit them, you get a sense of what they would look like," says Shanil Virani, director of the planetarium and perhaps Virginia's most passionate space enthusiast. "You get a real perspective in terms of size, in terms of mass, in terms of color. You get a real sense of how close they are in the galactic neighborhood."
In summer 2013, the planetarium upgraded the video system that makes such journeys possible, installing a Digistar 5 system that displays full-dome videos that are two-and-a-half times sharper than high-definition television. “Digistar 5 really brings astrophysics into the 21st century and this ability to convey these sometimes complicated ideas in a very beautiful, elegant way on the dome gives you the perspective as if you were a time traveler or an astronaut visiting,” says Virani.
The $200,000 upgrade makes the Wells Planetarium the only one in the world to have both the Digistar 5 movie system and a GOTO CHRONOS star projection system. With the remotely controlled star projector, the planetarium can display the nighttime sky as it would appear from anywhere on earth at any time of year. Best of all, it can show what the nighttime sky would look like without interference from lights, something that's practically impossible from just about anywhere on Earth.
Virani uses the star projector to show students and visitors that light pollution isn’t just a big city problem. By displaying what the Shenandoah Valley looks like with and without light pollution, audiences gain a better understanding of the damaging effects.
The planetarium's full-dome gives visitors a total-immersion-in-space experience, something they can do for free on weekends from late August through June. The planetarium presents three short movies about space exploration and discovery every Saturday. The 1 p.m. show is intended for audiences with young children while the later show, scheduled for 2:15 and 3:30 p.m., caters to older children and adults. Each show is followed by a short discussion of the night sky.
Virani says the two most popular shows are “One World, One Sky: Big Bird's Adventure” and “The Mystery of the Christmas Star,” a special show the planetarium runs from just after Thanksgiving to just before Christmas Eve.
The planetarium also provides visitors experiences outside its Miller Hall home. Monthly star parties are held so visitors can see the night sky for themselves through telescopes mounted on stands at the JMU Astronomy Park. The planetarium also sets up solar telescopes during the daytime so visitors can get a one-of-a-kind look at the sun before and during its Saturday shows. “When kids look through it and they see our sun—and it’s not that pale yellow dot they think it is, or that they draw in pictures—they see an active, dynamic star with all those cosmetic defects that Galileo said he saw, it’s just incredible,” says Virani.
Summer space camps for children are held in July. "We seek to inspire and excite the next generation of scientists and engineers," Virani says. "The camp demonstrates that science is constantly changing, constantly uncovering new clues about why our Universe is the way it is, and not some other way. We ask questions and then use the scientific method to try to answer them. We investigate the size and scale of our solar system, learn more about the robotic exploration of it and learn more about our own Planet Earth and our fragile environment."
Even with all the technology he has at his fingertips, Virani says his favorite part of being director is talking to people "and sharing that joy and excitement and enthusiasm about science." He's also excited about the opportunity JMU students have to run the Saturday programs. "It's not me that you see. It's our students and I just think that's brilliant, to see JMU students involved to the extent that they are in giving scientific presentations and running a $2 million planetarium, the only one in the world like it, is incredible."