Seeing stars: high tech lets students galaxy gaze

Photo by Sue Suchyta
Robert Clubb (left) a volunteer planetarium moderator and a 12-year member of the Ford Amateur Astronomy Club, answers questions from Bear Cub Scouts Ethan Moore (second from left), Noah Tyrybon and Devin Diehl, 8-year-old third-grade Bear Cub Scouts from Wyandotte’s Washington Elementary School Pack 1771 after the first spring sky star show, “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” named after the Robert Frost poem, March 20 in Hammond Planetarium at Henry Ford Community College. The day marks the vernal equinox, the first day of spring in the Northern Hemisphere.

Times-Herald Newspapers

DEARBORN – Volunteer planetarium moderator Robert Clubb said the few stars students can see in the local sky are kind of boring.

“But if you can get away from the city lights and go out in the country you’ll be amazed at the stars you can see,” Clubb, a 12-year member of the Ford Amateur Astronomy Club, a non-profit that encourages the study of astronomy, said.

The Hammond Planetarium in Henry Ford Community College’s Science Building does the next best thing – its spring star show, “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” takes students and other visitors on a guided tour of the stars as if they were viewing the sky in the country, away from light pollution – with a virtual planetary journey added as well.

The planetarium’s spring star presentation begins with a story about the stars with the original star projector first. The moderator then tells attendees which stars and planets can be seen locally in the night sky. The final part of the show takes audiences on a virtual journey to select planets and moons in the galaxy.

The domed room uses its original star projector from the ’60s with a new digital full dome projector and digital slide projectors made possible by a recent bequest from Guy Hammond, a Dearborn resident who died early in 2011 and left donations to the planetarium and to several other Dearborn organizations.

HFCC physics professor and astronomy instructor Steve Murrell said the new equipment, installed during the Science Building renovation and refurbishing, projects onto a mirror and “splashes” an image onto the entire dome.

“So with that, you can immerse yourself,” Murrell said. “Sitting in a seat here I can take us on a ride through the solar system, literally; go in orbit around planets; I can land on planets and fly past them and all kinds of stuff, so I’ve been incorporating that into the show, which is brand new – we’ve never been able to do that before.”

Devin Diehl, who thought the virtual planetary journey was cool, said he felt like he was watching from a space ship. The 8-year-old third grade Bear Cub Scout from Pack 1771 at Washington Elementary School in Wyandotte said the experience was also like a video game. He said the show made it seem as if they were approaching the rings of the planet Saturn.

“I thought it was real,” Diehl said. “I started leaning; (I feel like) I’m by an asteroid!”

Fellow Bear Cub Scout Ethan Moore, 8 and a third grader at Washington Elementary, agreed with Diehl that the planetarium experience was cool and like a video game.

“I thought I was like on a little space ship that was the size of me… and I was looking at all the planets,” Moore said.

Bear Cub Scout Noah Tyrybon, 8 a third grader at Washington, said he had found the Big and Little Dippers in the sky before, but he also did not clearly see the bear in the Big Dipper, Ursa Major.

Tyrybon said he could see an ice cream cone pattern of stars in the spring sky, though, with one scoop falling to the side.

Tyrybon had more to say about the planetary part of the show.

He said the planets looked like a big globe, and thinks someday he might get to go to another planet “because you can see them from Earth.”

Tyrybon likes to find the planets Mars and Venus in the night sky, and said he was surprised by the planetary color shown in the planetarium show.

“I didn’t know there was a colorful planet,” Tyrybon said, referring to Mars, sometimes called the red planet. “I thought it was just like white stars.”

All three Bear Cub Scouts said they would recommend the star show to their friends.

Their pack leader Jaclyn Kaliszewski Moore, 35, of Wyandotte said the three Bear Cub Scouts completed their science badge and belt loop requirement by visiting the planetarium. She said it was the last thing they needed to do to complete the Bear Cub rank and become Webelos, the next age group rank.

Seth Moore (no relation), 13, a seventh grader at Franklin Middle School in Wayne, said that he will also recommend the star show to his friends, and will come back again to see it.

Moore focused less on the stars and more on the planets, and said he liked learning about the moons of Saturn, of which there are many different types and sizes. Some are a kilometer across, while others are larger than Mercury.

Because of the stunning visual presentation across the dome screen of the planetary part of the show created by the new digital dome projector, Murrell said that student reaction to the planet segment of the presentation is generally one of awe.

Murrell added that many students have also never seen a satellite, shooting star or the aurora borealis.

“They’ve never been out star gazing!” Murrell said. “(I tell them) you got to get out more often!

“Seeing the sky, sitting in a comfortable seat, and seeing all the stars in the sky, right away I think people kind of sit back and go ‘Wow, this is going to be kind of cool,’” Murrell said.

Murrell added that people who see the new technology for the first time are surprised by it.

“The idea of having a planet there that’s fifteen feet wide and rotating in front of you — you get this sense of three-dimensionality because of the shape of the dome and where you’re sitting in it,” Murrell said.

He added that people who have been to the planetarium before and see the new technology are impressed, because it opens up a whole new dimension.

Murrell said the show runs 45 minutes, but people should allow time for questions after the presentation.

“The operators – the people who give the show – are more than happy to answer questions,” Murrell said. “They’ll often… turn the lights back down and they’ll show some more stuff in real time; they know how to run the system.”

The planetarium show runs at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday and 3 p.m. Saturday now through May 29. The event is free and open to the public. For more information, call Murrell at (313) 317-1536, or go to