Skip to main content Skip to navigation
Washington State University
CAS Connect October 2014

New planetarium system unique in Inland Northwest

The constellations are shining brighter at the WSU Planetarium on the Pullman campus, thanks to a new digital projection system.

“It is kind of like the Google Earth of the stars,” said Michael Allen, planetarium director and senior instructor of physics and astronomy. “There is really nothing else like this in the Inland Northwest.”

Michael Allen, planetarium director and senior instructor of physics and astronomy, and Guy Worthey, associate professor of physics and astronomy, stand beneath the dome of WSU's planetarium.
Michael Allen, planetarium director and senior instructor of physics and astronomy, and Guy Worthey, associate professor of physics and astronomy, stand beneath the dome of WSU’s planetarium.

Mounted at the far end of the circular room, the system uses a high-end digital projector, specially cut mirrors, and Stellarium, a free open source software that projects a realistic sky in three dimensions, just like you would see standing in the backyard on a clear night.

“You are in a full dome situation and there is all kinds of cool visual information surrounding you,” said Guy Worthey, associate professor of physics and astronomy. “It is almost like you can reach out and touch the universe.”

Enter the dome

With a touch of a button, Allen lights up the planetarium dome with an image of the northern hemisphere sky. He clicks the space bar and turns the atmosphere off, revealing constellations and planets that are labeled to make them easier to pick out.

He hovers the cursor over Mars and zooms in. The planet grows in size until it and its two moons, Phobos and Deimos, fill the 25-foot-diameter field of view. On the surface of the planet, volcanoes are clearly visible.

Stellarium is programmed with our planets and solar system, plus faraway galaxies, Native American and Greek constellations, and much more. The program uses real images taken by land-based and orbiting observatories to make the viewing experience more realistic and educational.

“Going digital really opens up the possibilities of what you can explore compared to our old system,” Allen said.

The previous system, a Spitz A3 Star Ball, was purchased in 1968. Resembling a large metal disco ball, it consists of a bright red bulb surrounded by a sphere of sheet metal with holes punched in it. The sheet metal ball rotates, shooting pinpricks of red light onto the dome where stars would appear in the sky.

Allen said the planetarium staff has used the Spitz A3 Star Ball to teach elementary and middle school students about the changing seasons and positions of celestial objects for decades. On average about 1,200 students visit the planetarium a year.

Public shows fund new system

Last January, Allen, Worthey, and Kaylan Petrie, a doctoral candidate in the College of Education, decided to offer the first series of public shows at the planetarium.

“Our thought was a lot of people in the Pullman area have a connection with the night sky,” Petrie said. “We wanted to offer a series of educational shows so that, when you are out at night on the Palouse and look up, you know what you are seeing.”

The series included shows like “Turn, Turn, Turn,” which focused on the calendar in the sky, and a Valentine’s Day show that had visitors waiting in line to get in. Half of the spring season shows at the planetarium were sold out, and ticket sales provided funds for the new digital projection system.

“There was an enormous amount of public interest, which we are really grateful for,” Worthey said. “Our intent this fall is to surprise people and keep them engaged with what our new system has to offer.”

Visual storytelling 101

The main advantage of the new system is a visual experience that lends itself to storytelling, said Petrie, who hosts most of the planetarium events. Her doctoral thesis focuses on informal science education with an emphasis on planetariums.

“In general, a lot of visitors to the planetarium struggle to make the connection between the dots on the ceiling and the boundaries of the constellations,” she said. “With this new system we can show pictures instead of laser dot outlines and also zoom in on things far away, like a nebula or star cluster.”

Petrie, who considers herself a self-taught fan of the sky, said her presentations are geared toward a general audience and she encourages visitors to ask questions.

“I think the real value and fun for folks is that, if they are really curious about something they have the opportunity to ask about it,” she said. “They have a lot more power and control over the educational and visual experience compared to watching the TV at home.”

Athletes and spooks

The planetarium’s fall series kicked off Sept. 19 with “Maiden Voyage,” a show about the highlights of the fall sky and the digital projection system’s new features. The series will include four more shows, each running twice, through Dec. 7.

The planetarium will feature two new shows this month.

  • Athletes of the Sky – Saturday, Oct. 25, and Sunday, Oct. 26 (Dad’s Weekend). Learn about constellation myths of strength and heroism and the even more amazing and true powerhouses of the universe: the stupendous and mind-boggling supermassive black holes.
  • Celestial Spooks – Friday, Oct. 31. Experience the mythology of the sky for the truly eerie and macabre.

Planetarium shows and tickets can be purchased at the door for $10. Advance tickets are available at the Beasley Coliseum Box Office or at  (convenience charge applies). Children age 6 and younger get in free.