From Staff Reports
As audience members make their first “flight” to Mars, Dr. Gary Henson often makes note of the audible gasps that fill the room.
“It makes the investment in the full-dome technology well worth it,” he said.
An associate professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy, Henson is the director of the East Tennessee State University Planetarium, a spacious theatre capable of stunning visual graphics thanks to a state-of the-art, full-dome digital projection system.
The planetarium is playing an important role on ETSU’s campus, as well as in the region.
“Our goal is to be able to provide the most authentic, realistic views of objects and simulations of science concepts and phenomena – not just limited to astronomy – to increase the engagement, understanding and appreciation of science knowledge by both students and the broader public community who experience programming in the planetarium,” Henson said.
Hundreds of students regularly utilize the space during three freshman-level astronomy courses taught each fall and spring semester.
“Many students come into our astronomy-themed science courses already enthused by their experiences with NASA-released images, ongoing solar system exploration such as the Mars rovers, the abundance of space-based science fiction movies and even video games,” Henson said. “For the sciences, students can grow a plant, mix chemicals or break apart a rock in the ‘real’ world of a science laboratory.”
“However, they may not be able to experience views of a clear, dark sky and they certainly can’t travel to the moon or Mars or fly around the solar system. And even in our rural East Tennessee region, air pollution, light pollution and weather limit the opportunities for most persons to experience a real night sky. Such experiences can only be gained through computer simulations and animations that need to be as realistic as possible.”
Over the years, ETSU has hosted dozens of organizations. Presentations can be tailored to a group’s needs and are offered free of charge to local schools.
The tradition of public engagement continues this semester.
On April 21, the university will present a full-dome video program titled “Out There: The Quest for Extrasolar Planets.” On May 12, another video program will air titled “From Earth to the Universe.” Both shows begin at 7 p.m. and last about an hour.
Thanks to a $75,000 renovation funded through the ETSU Technology Access Fee program in 2014, the planetarium sports a unique fisheye lens projection system and astronomy software. The university has also repainted the dome and installed new flooring and seating.
Located on the top floor of Hutcheson Hall on South Dossett Drive, seating in the planetarium is limited to 45 on a first-come, first-served basis. For questions about booking the planetarium, email Henson at [email protected]