Opening the Skies and Closing the Gap

Donations transform the planetarium experience

Katy Smith, Jacob Chinn photo

Physics student Alexander Knowles, now a senior, started his job as a planetarium operator at the most eventful time in Flandrau Science Center & Planetarium history. It was 2014, and Hector Vector the Star Projector was going into retirement. 

Hector had illuminated the theater dome unfailingly since the planetarium’s opening in 1975. But changes in technology had created an ever-widening gap between the University of Arizona’s achievement in space sciences and its ability to share the wonders of exploration.

Two donor-funded updates have now closed the gap and opened up a world of possibility. Following Hector’s replacement with a state-of-the-art system, a total theater renovation completed this August introduced new seats, a layout that optimizes the viewing experience and enhanced lighting and sound. 

The planetarium offers commercially produced films on science topics as well as shows that pair public audiences and school groups with student workers like Knowles, who customize the experience, answer questions and educate on UA discoveries.

Knowles was the last Flandrau employee trained to lead live shows using Hector, whose vantage point was firmly rooted on Earth. Today, operators take audiences on virtual tours with the FullDome system, which uses two ultra-high-resolution digital projectors and a digital atlas of the cosmos to simulate a spaceship effect. Some of the frequently updated imagery is captured from missions in which the UA plays a lead or collaborating role.

The format is neither 3-D nor IMAX, but the visual quality draws comparisons to both. Those who haven’t seen a show in several years are frequently blown away, Knowles says. 

“It really gets people when you start flying around space. It almost feels like you’re in it,” he says. “People may have heard about it, but they didn’t expect to see Saturn up close and to fly through the rings and see all the tiny objects that make up the rings. We’re using satellite imagery for the planets, so what you see is actually what it is,” he says.

UA students react the same way, says Astronomer and Senior Lecturer Thomas Fleming. He is a cheerleader for using the planetarium theater as a classroom, particularly for courses many non-STEM majors enroll in to fulfill undergraduate science requirements. 

“I wow them on Day One. When the lights come up, their jaws are dropping,” says Fleming. 

When students can see celestial bodies from varying angles and in relation to each other, he says, they’re inspired to apply themselves, and they grasp the material more successfully.

Fleming has long used what he calls the brute force method, a way of teaching complex and abstract concepts visually and without relying on advanced math. The FullDome system is a big step above his former options — drawing a diagram or demonstrating spatial relationships with objects such as tennis balls and globes. 

He can see the difference in the fact that 20 percent more students who take classes at Flandrau earn A’s — and he can see it on their faces.

“The look of amazement and excitement, when all of a sudden a student who thought science was too hard understands: It’s priceless!” says Fleming.

More than 800 students have taken classes with the FullDome system. Word about “one of the coolest classrooms on campus” is spreading, says Knowles. “It’s the place to be. Everyone tries to get into Dr. Fleming’s class.” 

Public audiences also are lining up. In the first year with the FullDome system, theater visits increased by 71 percent. The modernized planetarium impresses school groups as well, Knowles says. Classes come from as far away as New Mexico, and teachers often say it’s their best field trip of the year. 

Many donors funded the projection system update, with Tucson Foundations/The George Mason Green & Lois C. Green Foundation, The Eos Foundation and Wells Fargo taking lead roles. The theater renovation was made possible through a gift from The Eos Foundation.

Their support gives Flandrau a unique opportunity to engage a diverse and growing audience with UA science, says Executive Director Kellee Campbell.

When cameras on the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft begin recording images, operators will be able to project them onto the dome.

“We did that with the New Horizons mission to Pluto. We were able to pull up the most updated images and talk about it as it was progressing,” says Knowles.

Planetarium and academic leaders hope to create and share more content about University initiatives in space and other sciences, ideally in full FullDome glory and perhaps someday in planetariums around the world. 

For now, Campbell is grateful donors have enhanced education and outreach in southern Arizona.

“Flandrau is reaching people with a more compelling experience than ever before, ensuring science remains a strength in our community,” she says.