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Building Bigger Skies
Think back to 1985. Where were you? Remember what your phone was like, were you one of the lucky ones who had a cell phone or did you just have a land line? What about your computer, was it a big machine with just a green screen? How about your hair style and your clothes? Were you just like Don Johnson on Miami Vice? That was the year of Back to the Future, Cocoon and Rocky IV.
Are you still using that same computer or phone today? Dialing out on a rotary phone, attaching your computer to a modem and listening to the squeaks and squawks as it dials up? Most of us have moved along with technology and have upgraded many times over the years. However, Taylor Planetarium still uses the then ‘state of the art’ technology from when it opened back in 1985. The planetarium has done a great job of making some minor changes throughout the years trying to keep as current as they could, however technology and budgets have outpaced those efforts leading to the need for a major renovation of the facilities.
The Taylor Planetarium, Montana’s only public planetarium, is a 40-ft, 104-seat domed theater located at the Museum of the Rockies. The Planetarium provides a unique look at the Montana night sky and has a variety of educational shows year-round. The planetarium currently uses an Evans and Sutherland Digistar Two digital planetarium projector and is in the initial stages of an upgrade to the projection system and planetarium equipment that is slated to begin shortly.
Since the planetarium first opened up over twenty years ago, it has been an inspiration to young and old alike. It has inspired students to pursue careers in science, many of whom now work in planetariums and universities across the country, including Eric Loberg, Program Manager for the Taylor Planetarium who said, “The first planetarium I ever went to was the Taylor Planetarium, on a school field trip. The experience opened my eyes to the joys of astronomy and science and that inspiration put me on a path to spread that joy to a new generation.” Loberg currently has access to the new software and is enjoying his time getting to know the upgrades from the current system. He is planning to use the down time during renovations to make new programs that speak to the uniqueness of the Museum of the Rockies, Montana, and local school curriculum.
Last year while gearing up for the renovation project the Museum asked members about the planetarium in an online survey. The bottom line was that although members value the planetarium as a benefit of membership, it was time to update the technology and offer fresh, current programming. Teachers had been suggesting the same thing for the past few years and since 88% of the schools that visit the Museum want to see a planetarium show, they took their concerns seriously, too. To date, nearly 1.2 million visitors have been to a show in the Taylor Planetarium.
The Museum of the Rockies is also home to the Southwest Montana Astronomical Society (SMAS). We’ve been able to use the planetarium to view transits, eclipses, and have special programs for Astronomy Day, the Winter Lecture Series, and club meetings. SMAS is excited about the new opportunities that are opening up with the new upgrade. Some of the central values of SMAS are discovery, education, and enjoyment of all things astronomy. The collaborations of SMAS and the Museum of the Rockies have had greater impact with the availability of the planetarium. We can only imagine how the new upgrade will lead to bigger and better events and shows which in turn will spark more imaginations.
Fundraising has been a major part of the Building Bigger Skies campaign. The Museum of the Rockies has been working on this project for a few years planning events, programs and other efforts to raise the awareness and funds to bring the planetarium up to date. The public can help with supporting the new planetarium in big ways, like making online donations at www.museumoftherockies.org. Or small ways like making purchases at the Museum store such as the vintage astronomy postcards or magnets for under $6.00 where proceeds go to the campaign. The planetarium is currently open through Labor Day, when it is slated to close to start the $1.5 million renovations.
The new planetarium is going digital, meaning that you will be able to see the same shows that visitors to any big city planetarium could see. With the new equipment, the emphasis is not on the technology but on flexible storytelling tools to customize presentations to any audience. Designed from the “ground up” to demonstrate astronomy and science concepts, it includes the known universe in three-dimensional real-time computer graphics. The software contains the most comprehensive set of astronomical data ever assembled, including the fully integrated Digital Universe data set from the American Museum of Natural History and NASA. The Museum of the Rockies will acquire a collection of new shows that reflect current research and update our K-12 school shows to the digital format. You’ll see other changes, too, including new and expanded seating, surround sound system, lighting, and a face-lift for the facility.
A new Taylor Planetarium will open in March 2013 when once again Taylor Planetarium will be a gem of the Treasure State.
I’d like to thank the American Computer Museum of Bozeman (2023 Stadium Drive, Suite 1A) for giving me a tour and allowing Bozeman Magazine to take pictures to accompany this article. I enjoyed their hospitality, knowledge, and vast collection and displays covering the 30,000 year history of modern humanity. I’d like to encourage you to go for a visit if you have not had the pleasure to visit this museum.
Lynn Powers is the president of the Southwest Montana Astronomical Society and a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador. She enjoys many hobbies including astronomy, geocaching, and has been an astronomy enthusiast for most of her life.