January 24, 2013

Astronomy to go: UW readies new portable planetarium

News and Information

The team that created the astronomy department's traveling planetarium. From left they are doctoral student Nell Byler, undergraduate Justin Gailey, doctoral student Phil Rosenfeld and lecturer Oliver Fraser.

Mary Levin

The team that created the astronomy department’s traveling planetarium. From left they are doctoral student Nell Byler, undergraduate Justin Gailey, doctoral student Phil Rosenfield and lecturer Oliver Fraser.

The University of Washington astronomy department is readying a traveling planetarium to take to schools for outreach — and collaboration — in Seattle and beyond.

It may look like a carnival bouncy house or an inflatable igloo, but the portable planetarium is in fact an innovative tool for teaching and spreading interest in astronomy.

The circular fabric dome, made by GoDome, is about 10 feet tall and 20 feet across — big enough to hold a classroom of young astronomers — and stays upright with the help of a high-powered fan.

It’s a fully functional planetarium and then some, revealing the cosmos in multiple wavelengths and frequencies and over time, with three-dimensional simulations of the movement of planets, stars and galaxies, all powered by a laptop computer and Microsoft’s freely downloadable Worldwide Telescope software.

The UW astronomy department's new portable planetarium may look like an inflated igloo, but it is actually an innovative teaching tool, and will enable young students to create their own planetarium shows. Team members from left are Justin Gailey, Phil Rosenfeld, Nell Byler and Oliver Fraser.

Mary Levin

The UW astronomy department’s new portable planetarium may look like an inflated igloo, but it is actually an innovative teaching tool, and will enable young students to create their own planetarium shows. Team members from left are Justin Gailey, Phil Rosenfield, Nell Byler and Oliver Fraser.

The planetarium is the creation of a team of UW students and faculty originally led by post-doctoral researcher John Wisniewski, who has taken a faculty post at the University of Oklahoma. The team continues with doctoral student Phil Rosenfield as principal investigator. Joining him in the work are astronomy lecturer Oliver Fraser, undergraduate Justin Gailey and fellow doctoral student Nell Byler.

Rosenfield said recent department surveys show that while many students bus in to visit the UW planetarium, few are from the Seattle area. So the team decided to bring astronomy to the schools instead of the other way around.

This traveling planetarium will be more interactive than most.

“We are all working on curriculum for the students to create their own shows and use our planetarium like a presentation tool,” Rosenfield said. The team is looking to Gailey and future undergraduates to keep the project going when Rosenfoeld finishes his degree.

Gailey helped develop the planetarium’s mirror-based optics and wrote curriculum for its use in a high school setting.

Astronomy undergradute Justin Gailey operates controls on the UW astronomy department's new portable planetarium.

Mary Levin

Astronomy undergradute Justin Gailey operates controls on the UW astronomy department’s new portable planetarium. Gailey helped create the optics and even surveyed students before and after planetarium shows to learn how it changed students’ attitudes toward science and astronomy.

“You essentially make little stops,” Gailey said. “You can say, I want to look at this planet and you can pause the tour and talk about it, then move on and it will pan to the next subject.”

Gailey has already conducted a few shows with the new planetarium, and used those for research, giving students tests before and after his show. In the post-show test, Gailey said, “most people gave the correct answer for our content question, and there were in general more favorable attitudes toward science and astronomy.”

Fraser said: “Previously, if you wanted a digital planetarium that was portable you had to get a very expensive fish-eye lens to blow up the image and make it cover the whole dome. We’re doing this with a lower-cost design. This is what you can do now for less than twenty grand.”

The portable planetarium adds to the UW’s existing astronomy outreach projects that include shows at the UW Campus Planetarium and viewing of the stars at the Theodor Jacobsen Observatory.

The team is now readying the planetarium for school visits. School staff members wishing to learn more about the traveling planetarium or arrange for a visit to their school may email uw.mobile.planetarium@gmail.com.

The UW’s traveling planetarium is paid for by a NASA Hubble Space Telescope education and public outreach grant.

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For more information or interviews, contact Rosenfield at philrose@astro.washington.edu, Fraser at ojf@uw.edu or 206-669-1886; or Gailey at gailej2@u.washington.edu or 360-775-8007.