State-of-the-Art Hybrid System Takes Visitors Where No One Has Gone

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 these newly discovered exo-planets, you can orbit them, you get a sense of what they would look like," said Shanil Virani, former director of the planetarium. "You get a real perspective in terms of size, in terms of mass, in terms of color. You also get a real sense of how close they are in our galactic neighborhood."

In summer 2013, the planetarium upgraded the video system that makes such journeys possible, installing a Evans & Sutherland Digistar 5 system that displays full-dome videos that are two-and-a-half times sharper than high-definition television. “Digistar 5 really brings planetarium astrophysics into the 21st century and this ability to convey these sometimes complicated ideas in a very beautiful, elegant, immersive way on the dome gives you the perspective as if you were a time traveler or an astronaut visiting this alien worlds” says Virani.

The $200,000 upgrade makes the Wells Planetarium one of only a handful planetariums in the world currently to have both the Digistar 5 ultra-high resoltion digital projection system and a Goto CHRONOS opto-mechanical 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 Saturdays from September through the end of June. The planetarium presents short full dome movies about space exploration and discovery every Saturday. The 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. shows are intended for audiences with young children while the later shows, at 2:15 and 3:30 p.m., caters to older children and adults. Each show is followed by a live star talk highlighting the Valley sky -- the stars, planets and constellations that visitors can see at that time of the year on a clear night in their backyard. 

Virani says the most popular show is “The Mystery of the Christmas Star,” a special Christmas show that the planetarium runs from right after Thanksgiving to just before Christmas.

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. These public star parties are scheduled for the last Friday of every month with Saturday being the back-up in case of inclement weather (decisions will be posted here, as well as on Facebook & Twitter). The planetarium also sets up solar telescopes during the daytime when clear so that visitors can get a one-of-a-kind look at the sun before or after its Saturday shows. “When kids look through it and they see our Sun as the active, dynamic star that it is and not that pale yellow dot that they draw in pictures. They see a churning surface, hurtling plasma towards that produce the gorgeous aurorae seen in the north and south. The views are just incredible!” says Virani.

Summer Science Explorers camps for children are held in July. "We seek to inspire and excite the next generation of scientists and engineers," Virani says. "Our summer camps 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." Many of the Camp councillors are JMU pre-service teachers and physics majors considering teaching as a profession to pursue after JMU. "What a great way to become dynamic science teachers!"

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, 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 in giving public scientific presentations and running a $2 million, state-of-the art planetarium, the only one in the world like it, is incredible."

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