Brightening the night sky at Aspen High | AspenTimes.com
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Brightening the night sky at Aspen High

Joel Stonington
Aspen, CO Colorado

ASPEN ” Aspen High School’s planetarium has come a long way since it originally was built in the mid-1960s.

With a new projector recently installed in the former planetarium, images from the famed Hubble Space Telescope or a perfect representation of the night sky can be projected onto the ceiling.

Boasting a brick silo 14 feet in diameter with a white dome hung in the middle, the planetarium isn’t much to look at. When it originally was built, the star machine in the middle was not much more than a globe with pinholes.

But a new digital projector has completely changed the way astronomy is taught at the high school and hopes are high that the planetarium will become a community asset ” small and funky as it is.

While the projector has the capability to project high-quality digital movies featuring images from the Hubble Space Telescope, hurdles remain, such as the high cost of the movies, sometimes as much as $2,000 for a half-hour film.

Earth science teacher Travis Moore and physics teacher Marc Whitley, both considerable forces behind acquiring the projector, took a lunch period Tuesday to show off what the new planetarium can do.

First they projected the noon sky onto the ceiling. Then they dimmed the sun and showed just what the sky would look like at that exact moment. Next they displayed how the machine can highlight constellations, zoom in on actual images of planets and label specific stars at the touch of a button.

“Students know 20 constellations and a dozen of the largest stars,” Moore said. “If there’s a current event ” right now we’re talking about Mercury because of the Messenger spacecraft flyby ” we can focus on it. Facts are changing all the time.”

The $19,500 projector and a $1,000 sound system were paid for by the Aspen School District, a private donor, a grant from the Aspen Education Foundation and the Aspen Science Center.

“It turns the night sky into this amazing, rich adventure,” said Kevin Ward, science center director. Ward said he hopes to see the planetarium open for shows to the general public, movie screenings and collaborations with physicists from the Aspen Physics Center.

Brad Bates, the assistant principal at the high school, said those possibilities are exciting for the school as well. However, Bates said the top goal was getting it to a point where teachers can use it, and a big question remains about how to manage it.

At the moment, Bates said options are open, including beginning an endowment, showing movies and opening the planetarium for the broader public with the caveat that someone would need to manage it and put on events.

At the moment, the primary use of the planetarium is as a teaching tool.

The new planetarium has been inspiring students with a new hands-on method of looking up.

“It’s really rare for kids to suggest a new course, especially one that’s science-based,” Bates said. “But kids have walked in and demanded a new, higher-level astronomy course.”

jstonington@aspentimes.com


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