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The Marshall W. Alworth Planetarium:
This year marks the 400th anniversary of Galileo’s first astronomical observations through a telescope. To commemorate this event, 2009 has been designated the International Year of Astronomy. UMD’s Marshall W. Alworth Planetarium will join the global celebration with its own Astronomy Day on April 18, and every Wednesday it offers a wide range of free lectures and astronomical shows that are, well, out of this world.
According to Howard Mooers, director of the Planetarium and professor and head of the Department of Geological Sciences, over 9,000 people attended shows at the Planetarium last year. Many of the attendees were children. “Kids are fascinated by the stars,” Mooers said. The Planetarium, which seats seventy people, offers private shows by appointment. Many private shows are for K-12 school groups, scout troops and birthday parties. Private shows can be arranged around special topics such as the moon, Mars, the constellations or one of many other programs.
One of the most compelling aspects of the Planetarium is its 30-foot domed ceiling and the star machine, which transforms the ceiling into a window on the universe. As the house lights dim, the stars begin to emerge overhead. Soon thousands of stars become visible. Planetarium technology enables the audience to not only see the stars and their relationships as constellations, but to zoom in on various planets and the moons that encircle them. It is easy to imagine traveling through space, gliding past Jupiter and Saturn and on to the Kuiper Belt.
The Marshall W. Alworth Planetarium isn’t just for kids however. Mooers knows that space exploration beckons adults as well. “Everyone is curious about the Universe. It’s a frontier, and you can’t get there unless you come here,” he noted. Wednesday lectures, which begin at 7 p.m., offer a wide range of topics. The first Wednesday of each month features “Stargazing Tonight” and outlines which stars, constellations and planets will be visible in the sky that month. The second Wednesday of each month hosts the Arrowhead Astronomical Society (AAS). The monthly meeting of the Society follows their presentation. The AAS is open to anyone of any age with an interest in astronomy and dues are only $1.00 per month. Various topics are covered in other weekly showings. The March 18 lecture will be “Modern Astronomy: From Newton to Hawking.” On March 25 “Pluto – The Dwarf Planet” will be explored, and on April 15 the program focuses on the “Discoveries of the Hubble Space Telescope." All of these lectures are free and open to the public. A complete list of showings through May 2009 is available on the Planetarium website at http://www.d.umn.edu/planet/programs/weekly.html
Astronomy Day on Saturday, April 18 will begin at 10 a.m. and include videos, lectures, demonstrations, booths, and workshops suitable for all ages. There will be a presentation entitled “Return to the Moon” which will outline NASA’s plans to once again explore the moon. The discussion will include where astronauts might land and what scientists hope to accomplish. Astronomy Day festivities will run all day and include solar and night observing (weather permitting). A keynote speaker is yet to be announced. Best of all, the entire event is free.
The Marshall W. Alworth Planetarium, which was built in 1965, is a wonderful resource, not only for UMD students, faculty and staff, but for the entire region. Surprisingly, for all it offers, the Planetarium operates with very little funding and a small staff of three part-time student workers. Mooers has used some creative ways to raise money, including selling old equipment on eBay that had been taken out of UMD inventory. “We were able to buy new telescopes and planet globes with that money,” Mooers noted. He hopes to raise funds in the future for maintenance and upgrades to the Planetarium to keep it thriving for years to come.
Written by Kathleen McQuillan-Hofmann, firstname.lastname@example.org
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