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Out of this world

Planetarium welcomes 50,000 stargazers in first year

A federal grant helped fund the “Cosmic CSI” show, which ran through May.

The Planetarium at UT Arlington celebrated its first birthday in March.

“Celestially speaking, that means its first trip around the sun,” says physics Chairman James Horwitz.

Film crew focuses on planetarium

Seeing stars at The Planetarium at UT Arlington is business as usual. Normally, all cameras are pointed in a heavenly direction.

But not when producer Lyn Williams with Dallas Community Television arrived in April with a film crew to shoot an episode of “Teen Talk,” a program that promotes career awareness and college preparation.

The episode featured astronomy students Christy Cox, Amber McCuddy and Phyllis Whittlesey discussing their fascination with the stars and their reasons for choosing UT Arlington.

Physics major Whittlesey, an Arlington High School graduate, said working with the state-of-the art astronomy lab is a dream come true for someone who has always loved planetariums. She said the faculty give student lots of hands-on opportunities. And the campus itself scores high marks.

“I visited the campus when I still was in high school, and I loved it,” she said.

Planetarium Interim Director Joe Eakin was interviewed, along with Associate Professor Manfred Cuntz, who co-directs the astronomy program, and astronomy lab supervisor Levent Gurdemir. Doctoral student Peter Williams, astronomy Lecturer Nilakshi Veerabathina and Sarang Brahme, president of the Astronomical Student Organization Olympus Mons, also took a turn in front of the camera.

Dallas Community Television reaches a potential 154,000 households and 616,000 viewers, CEO Lisa Hembry said. After it premieres on the Dallas cable channel, the program will air on UT Arlington’s cable channel.

The planetarium boasts a 60-foot domed theater that seats 170 and a state-of-the-art digital projection system with full-dome video playback, real-time 3-D computer graphics and a real-time 3-D digital astronomy package. The technology-rich system—fewer than two dozen exist nationwide—not only simulates stars and planets as seen from Earth, but it enables virtual trips through the galaxy.

And it is proving to be no shooting star.

More than 50,000 people visited in its first year, including 2,000 intergalactic stargazers on the opening weekend. Visitors ranged from senior citizens groups to more than 21,000 students on field trips, like the six first-grade classes from L.A. Gililland Elementary School in Fort Worth. Teacher Melissa Gromlski found the show to be affordable, interactive and age appropriate.

“I thought it was great how the speaker really elaborated on the stars and constellations so that even our 6- and 7-year-old children could understand,” she said.

Teacher Cynthia Festa from Bell Manor Elementary in the Hurst-Euless-Bedford Independent School District said her fourth-graders loved their visit.

“It was one of the best field trips we have ever been on,” she said. “The narrator did an awesome job explaining and interacting with the kids. That’s all they talked about. We learned a great deal from the program.”

The planetarium is not all kid stuff, however. Six hundred people attended the couples-only “Romancing the Stars” show after it premiered at a private party for Theatre Arlington the weekend before Valentine’s Day. The planetarium has hosted birthday parties and wedding rehearsal dinners. The skies can be lit with a personalized show or tribute tailored to the event.

Some shows feature original scripts, like the second-place winner in this year’s international IPS/Eugenides Foundation planetarium scriptwriting contest. It was written by Robert Bonadurer, who came to UT Arlington from Minnesota to oversee the planetarium’s launch. In a letter announcing the award, Martin George, president of the International Planetarium Society, called Bonadurer’s “Honey, I Shrunk the Solar System” script “creative, inspiring, educational and, well, just plain fun. The committee could see children of all ages learning the many wonders of the planets and Sun through your show.”

“Honey, I Shrunk the Solar System” premiered in January. Another original show, “Cosmic CSI,” developed with a federal grant awarded to physics Associate Professor Manfred Cuntz, premiered in March.

This summer’s show comes from the National Space Centre in England and is narrated by Ewan McGregor, best known to Star Wars fans as Obi-Wan Kenobi. The show is called “Astronaut!” and lets viewers virtually experience a rocket launch from inside an astronaut’s body and explore the amazing worlds of inner and outer space.

“It follows a test astronaut named Chad through the beauty and potential perils of everything that space has to throw at him,” said Joe Eakin, planetarium interim director. “Viewers will see what it’s like to float around the International Space Station, as well as move through the microscopic regions of the human body.”

For a schedule of planetarium shows, call 817-272-1183 or visit www.uta.edu/planetarium.

— Sue Stevens

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