Valdosta Daily Times

July 24, 2011

VSU Planetarium offers a new look at the stars

Dean Poling
The Valdosta Daily Times

VALDOSTA — Dr. Kenneth Rumstay has stars in his eyes.

With the movement of a thumb, the heavens and Earth spin above his head. Day turns to night. The mind dizzies as stars rush past. Saturn’s rings stretch across the vast dome.

Further along, a black hole spirals. The eye pulled into its gravity. A cosmic whirlpool widens. Though firmly planted on the floor, a chair feels uprooted. The black hole inexorably spreads across the ceiling. Its vortex inhales the viewer. Imagination spurs viewers through the hearts of galaxies.

Welcome to Valdosta State University’s new planetarium.

This past week, Rumstay, a VSU professor of astronomy and physics and the VSU Observatory director, and Dr. Martha Leake, a VSU professor of astronomy, geology, physics, physical sciences, and interdisciplinary courses, have been training on the newly-installed digital equipment in the university’s planetarium.

Gone is the droid-like character of the old Spitz Company planetarium projector, which whirled with its many eyes to present the stars across the domed ceiling of the planetarium. Spitz stands in a room down the hall from the planetarium, a candidate for a future museum exhibit.

In its place stands a boxy planetarium projector from Digitalis Education Solutions. Robert Spearman, a Digitalis representative, handled the projector. David Binnewies of Bowen Technovation works with the new sound console in the planetarium. They spent late last week in Valdosta training Rumstay and Leake on the new system, which can be activated using an iPad.

The traditionally white-domed ceiling has been painted light gray to accommodate the images of the new digital system.

The new projector provides the traditional positioning of stars in the sky, though Rumstay notes they are not as focused the Spitz stars, but it opens the heavens to more detailed imagery. In the past, the planetarium could reveal a close-up view of the Orion constellation, for example, but it had to present that enlarged image in a part of the sky other than where Orion appears. Now, Rumstay can present an enlarged Orion in its rightful place among its fellow stars.

Using NASA images, the planetarium can whisk viewers on trips to neighboring planets in our solar system. It can create the illusion of a black hole swallowing a portion of the overhead ceiling.

The new system can present special movies. Shown to Elton John’s song, “Rocket Man,” they share a computer-generated preview for a movie on the history of manned space flight. This presentation bursts with music and rocket blasts. Apollo rockets ignite overhead. Astronauts and cosmonauts race into space. We enter space capsules and take a backseat ride on the moon rover. We have an atmospheric view of a shuttle launch. We watch the Earth from the viewpoint of the moon. … And this is only the preview to the movie.

VSU learned in September 2010 it had been approved for the $160,000 needed to purchase the equipment. Unfortunately, the planetarium will still seat only 48 people.

VSU will offer a similar number of planetarium shows this year as it has in the past. Rumstay plans to continue the traditional Star of Bethlehem shows as it has for many years, for example. He hopes to increase the number of planetarium presentations in the future.

While the U.S. space shuttle mission has come to a close, the VSU planetarium will continue to fuel the imaginations of potential stargazers and astronauts for a new generation.

The VSU Planetarium is located on the third floor of Nevins Hall. Look to The Times for announcements of planetarium shows.