$600,000 NASA Grant for New Planetarium Gives campus new indoor universe

Glennis Nagel

A $600,000 NASA grant for a new planetarium will likely make the facility the focal point not only for Bruner Hall of Science, but for the heart of the campus, once the addition and renovation of Bruner Hall are complete.

“We will soon have the most advanced planetarium in Nebraska and one of the best in the Great Plains,” said Dr. Jose Mena -Werth, professor of physics and physical science.

The current planetarium will close its doors at the end of the semester for the BHS renovation, which is expected to take two years.

“When we reopen, we will have a new, modern star projector, and UNK will have an even more beautiful indoor universe,” he said.

The UNK planetarium, the only one west of Hastings, serves two-thirds of the state with fundamental education on physics and astronomy. However, as the grant request pointed out, there are limitations. The current facility depends on 40-year-old equipment and furnishings. Further, with the present planetarium located in the basement of BHS, access is difficult, and the equipment and technology severely limits presentation capabilities. During shows, the audience waits while gear-driven systems are rotated to various planet positions.

In contrast, the new system will use an electronic display which will allow the operator to select desired perspectives and specific points in time, resulting in immediate display changes.

“We will have more controls and more flexibility to show the sky at any time, and from any location, on Earth,” Dr. Mena-Werth said.

“There is a high demand from schools, and public attendance numbers indicate a strong appetite for this resource,” he added. Each year, approximately 1,500 K – 12 students take part in field trips to the planetarium, 400 adults attend monthly public programs, and 300 university students use the planetarium for astronomy, physics and earth science courses.

It is also an important tool for education majors to learn to run the planetarium,” Dr. Mena-Werth said.

“Students who learn to use the planetarium have an edge on science jobs,” he added. “The new planetarium will give students a better feel and knowledge of the skies and stars.

“The stars are so accurate in terms of position and brightness that even with binoculars the planetarium sky will look identical to the real sky. Our new planetarium will be an educational tool for the 21 st century,” he concluded.