Digitally-driven project displays night sky in new light

Photo by Stacey Carmany. Robin Gill, astronomy educator at The Wilderness Center, stands with the Digitarium Epsilon Fixed Digital Planetarium System that was purchased late last year.

*A version of this story first appeared in The Budget’s Feb. 14, 2018, Local Edition. 

By Stacey Carmany
The Budget

The Wilderness Center began the new year with some new technology to bring its planetarium theater into the digital age.

In September, the center used funds from a Capital Improvement grant awarded by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources to purchase a new digital projector for its planetarium theater. It’s technology that staff say has taken the educational center’s astronomy programming to a whole new level with full-dome videos and high-resolution scientific visualizations.

“This is all electronic, all digital,” said Robin Gill, astronomy educator for The Wilderness Center. “We’ve never had anything digital before.”

The projector, a Digitarium Epsilon Fixed Digital Planetarium System manufactured by Digitalis Education Solutions, comes with numerous tools that can be used to advance astronomy education for both students and the general public, according to Lynda Price, education manager for The Wilderness Center. “It allows us to not only show the stars but to connect the dots for the constellations, to put the pictures of the constellations up there,” Price explained.

With the new projector, which can be controlled by a remote or an iPad program, Gill explained that she is now able to create three-dimensional visualizations of the sky that are time and location specific. She can also turn on name labels for celestial objects or lines to connect stars that form each constellation. “What I can do is lead them around the sky,” Gill explained. “I can also overwhelm them and turn all the constellations on, which is kind of cool if you have the right purpose for it.”

Another option allows Gill to turn on drawings that depict the characters represented by each group of stars. “What’s fun is I can turn on the artwork to go with them,” Gill said. “Some kids can get the idea from just the line drawings, and other kids need to be able to visualize it.”

In addition to familiar constellations like Orion, Cassiopeia, and Perseus that are based on characters from Roman mythology, Gill noted that the program also allows her to share visualizations for the constellations of other cultures.

As she guides students around the sky, Gill can also fly to or zoom in on certain objects for an up-close look. “This is giving me real topography,” she explained. “It gives me the capability to actually teach the moon in three dimensions rather than just flat.”

Topographical information is currently limited to the moon, Mercury, Earth, and Mars as well as one additional moon, although Gill is hoping the topography for some of the outer moons of Jupiter, Uranus and Neptune will become available in the future as NASA releases data from recent missions and missions to come. “Their moons have a lot of stuff to see, and I’m hoping eventually those will be added to the database, too, so we can fly to some of those objects,” she shared.

In addition to bringing detailed scientific visualizations into The Wilderness Center’s astronomy programming, the new projector has also allowed the center to begin offering full-dome planetarium movies for the first time. “Those are movies that have to do with different topics

in astronomy,” Price explained. “Some of them are for adults or general audience, and some of them are specifically for kids.”

Gill explained that for $30 the center is able to rent and stream full-dome planetarium movies for up to 72 hours through Loch Ness Productions, a company that produces and distributes digital planetarium shows. “To buy planetarium shows is very expensive, and they go out of date pretty quickly because of all the research that’s going on and new things being discovered,” she shared. “For us, it’s just way too expensive to buy them.”

For a complete schedule of upcoming planetarium presentations, visit www.wildernesscenter.org/calendar. The Wilderness Center is located at 9877 Alabama Avenue in Wilmot.