Out of this world

Science Central Director Martin Fisher points out where the planetarium will be constructed in an unused part of the building. BRIDGETT HERNANDEZ

Visitors to Science Central will soon have the opportunity to journey through space without leaving Earth.

The interactive science center recently announced plans to build the region’s only public planetarium. There are other planetariums in the region and in the Fort Wayne area, but they’re not open to the public on a regular basis, Science Central Director Martin Fisher said.

Right now, the closest public planetariums are several-hours’ drive away in Dayton, Ohio, Detroit and Chicago, he said.

The project is expected to cost about $2 million, which will cover start-up costs, demolition, construction and installation, long-term operations, staffing and equipment. So far, Science Central has raised $1.6 million for the project.

A start date hasn’t been set yet, but Fisher expects the project to be complete in the next one to two years. Construction – from signing contracts to ribbon cutting – will take 10-12 months, he said.

Continuing a legacy

Science Central’s planetarium will incorporate the original starball from the University of Saint Francis. The university made the decision to close its planetarium in 2016 after nearly 50 years on campus.

Science Central’s planetarium will incorporate the original starball from the University of Saint Francis pictured in this undated photograph. CONTRIBUTED

Over the years, thousands of schoolchildren visited the planetarium on field trips and other members of the community regularly used it, but it was largely underutilized by the faculty, said Lance Richey, vice president of academic affairs at USF. The university doesn’t offer majors in astronomy or space science. Updating the planetarium would have been costly, so the university decided to close it to make room for the expansion and renovation of its science facility, a project that is currently underway.

“I’m very excited about Science Central’s plans,” Richey said. “It was a difficult decision for us to discontinue the planetarium and it was very providential that just as we were making that decision, Science Central was ready to step up and take on the task.”

Fisher describes the starball as a “weird, alien piece of technology.” The equipment sits in the middle of the room and is comprised of a ball that has thousands of tiny holes – some the width of a human hair – and a very bright light underneath. The light shines through the holes and projects starlight on the curved ceiling of the planetarium.

The starball is practically an antique, but it’s in pristine condition, Fisher said. The equipment was maintained under a service contract the entire time it was at USF, Richey said.

Fisher said he’s proud to give the starball a new home so that it can continue to be appreciated for generations. He plans to make a sign that tells visitors about its history in Fort Wayne.

“I wanted to keep that legacy piece of equipment alive for this community,” Fisher said.

The planetarium will also house a modern digital system to show the sky from our position here on Earth, as well as images from our solar system and beyond.

“By having both systems together, we’ll be able to do a great service to our visitors and our community,” Fisher said.

Bringing science to life

The planetarium will be a permanent, 1,500-square-feet exhibit in an unused portion of Science Central. The building formerly served as the City Light and Power Plant. Nearly half of the building is raw, untapped space.

The planetarium will be Science Central’s second capital project. The first, Science on a Sphere, opened in 2013.

Science Central’s first capital campaign, Science on a Sphere, opened in 2013. BRIDGETT HERNANDEZ

That exhibit is centered around a six-foot sphere suspended in the middle of the room. Four projectors shine imagery onto its surface.

“The sphere is basically a movie screen and you’re watching these overlapping movies that are controlled by a computer (that makes) it seamless so you can’t tell where one projector ends and the other begins because the computer does a perfect overlay,” Fisher said.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration invented the technology as a research tool to understand earth and space systems in a three-dimensional format. Today, Science on a Sphere is installed at science centers, museums and universities around the world.

“Not only does it look like the Earth, but all of NASA imagery is available, so you can make it look like Mars or the moon or pick your favorite moon of Saturn. There are hundreds of images that are available,” Fisher said.

He said the goal of exhibits like Science on a Sphere and the new planetarium is to provide experiences that get young people thinking more about the science that surrounds them – whether that means going home and doing a web search about what they learned or deciding to take more science classes in high school or college.

“We make science come alive,” he said.