Pull of night sky keeps planetarium shows popular


Graduate students Travis Yeager, left, Alisha Chromey and Rita Wells inside the planetarium in Physics Hall.
Photo by Christopher Gannon.

The room goes dark, and the heads crane up. There in the basement of Physics Hall is the starry spectacle of the night sky, condensed to fit the planetarium's 20-foot-wide dome but not dimmed by city lights -- a far smaller version of the real thing, celestial but accessible.

"You could just leave town a little way and see that, but most people in their day-to-day don't," said Travis Yeager, a graduate student in physics and astronomy who volunteers at the planetarium. "It's a simple thing they have access to all the time, but the planetarium reminds you how cool it looks."

It's a reminder available on a monthly basis throughout the school year. The physics and astronomy department has for years opened the 27-seat planetarium for public shows that remain popular enough to regularly "sell" out of free tickets to the evening's three 20-minute shows, currently held on the last Friday of the month.

"I've been waiting for us to use up the 100 people in the Ames area interested in astronomy," joked associate professor Charles Kerton.

Student-run shows

The shows are organized and hosted by a volunteer group of doctoral students, including Yeager, Rita Wells, Alisha Chromey and Cory Schrandt, with help from undergraduates. The outreach helps spark and sustain interest in science, ensures consistent public use of the facility, provides a bit of publicity to faculty research and gives the graduate students valuable experience.

"It's always important that students can talk to people, regardless of what they're going to do in the future," Kerton said. "It's a good chance for them to develop communication skills and a good chance for them to learn things themselves."

The graduate student volunteers meet monthly to discuss the next show topic. Sometimes, they will mention a faculty member's research. Often, repeated broad themes, such as the solar system or galaxies, are freshened up by touching on recent astronomical headlines.

For instance, the topic of the last show of the semester -- tonight, April 26, at 6:30, 7 and 7:30 p.m. -- is backyard astronomy, which is about night-sky objects visible to the naked eye and often heavy on constellations. So how does that fit with the big astronomy news of the last month, the first images of a black hole? Since the black hole is at the center of a massive galaxy in the Virgo constellation, "I'll probably say, 'Here's the night sky. Here's the constellation Virgo. Oh, let's look at the Virgo supercluster,'" Chromey said.

The students share the speaking duties for performances, with a different leader for each show. On any given night, all of the versions of the show are different, as they don't follow set scripts and often will go in different directions based on their interests or audience questions. At least one common question has a new pat answer now.

"We get a lot of, 'What does a black hole look like?'" Wells said.

"Well, now we can show them," Chromey added.

The first show at 6:30 p.m. is designed for preschoolers, though all of the evening's shows are family-friendly. Ticket distribution begins about 6 p.m. and may quickly run out, though a fourth show sometimes is added. Science activities for kids are available in a waiting area outside the planetarium, which is in the northeast corner of Physics Hall. On clear nights, there's stargazing after the shows from Physics Hall's rooftop observation desk. The students also host private showings for interested groups on other days, if their schedules allow. 

'Not lacking for wonder'

Managing the public shows takes about five hours a month, which is time well-spent for a variety of reasons, the volunteers said.

Wells enjoys connecting astronomy to technology, exploring the similarities between galaxy clusters and more approable examples of science, like smartphones. "Here's some really awesome astronomy, awesome forces, awesome things we look at, and also, they run on the same basic principles that everything else runs on," she said.

For Chromey, it's a chance to share her love of the skies. "Astronomy is not lacking for wonder and awe," she said.

Witnessing that awe every time the lights go out is a simple pleasure, Yeager said. "I like to hear the 'wows,'" he said.