Fiske’s interior dome with astronomy projections. (photo courtesy fiske planetarium)

Big Changes Under a Big Sky

By Sara Bruskin

Many of us associate planetariums with school field trips or occasional museum visits. But in Boulder, we’re lucky enough to have one right here on the CU campus, with a great variety of shows and concerts. Fiske Planetarium isn’t just for students; it offers the greater community a creative approach to education and entertainment in its immersive theater. Experts stop by to give mind-bending presentations on the cosmos, and every week features laser shows and Liquid Sky animations set to musical favorites ranging from Pink Floyd and David Bowie to Beyoncé and Daft Punk.

A galaxy lights up the dome at one of Fiske’s shows. (photo courtesy fiske planetarium)

Most visually arresting of all are the FullDome films—short movies featuring Earth or the universe that are specially created for 360-degree domes, so you’re surrounded by views usually reserved for astronauts. Most popular of all is Black Holes: The Other Side of Infinity, with dizzying displays of physics and the mystery of unthinkable gravitational forces. Fiske brings in a couple of new shows every year, and its recent acquisition We Are Stars, narrated by Andy Serkis, is quickly becoming another favorite. A number of shows are specifically geared toward children, and one man can personally attest to the impact those presentations can have on a young mind.

When John Keller was in second grade, his class went to visit a planetarium. Sitting under the dome of projected stars inspired Keller to pursue a life of science and education—a life that has led him to our very own Fiske Planetarium. Keller assumes the role of planetarium director in January 2018 as Doug Duncan steps down from his 14-year run. No stranger to Boulder, Keller graduated from CU in 1999 with an M.S. degree in astrophysics and planetary science (he earned his Ph.D. at the University of Arizona), and is returning to the university after teaching at California Polytechnic State University.

John Keller, shown at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, is Fiske Planetarium’s incoming director. He has big plans to expand community-engagement projects. (photo courtesy fiske planetarium)

Stars of the Show: Projectors

This is the second big transition at Fiske in the past decade, as the planetarium also retired the star of the show, “Fritz,” in 2013. Fritz is the Zeiss Mark VI star projector that lit up the dome for 38 years before the Fiske team switched to digital projection. Named after the West German engineer responsible for its installation, the trusty analog projector Fritz is still on display in the planetarium’s lobby, along with its electrical blueprints, operation panels, the tools used to maintain it, and an interactive digital display with information about its history and operation.

The new projector is officially named MegaStar, but staff and students have affectionately dubbed it “R2-Tito” in honor of Francisco “Tito” Salas, Fiske’s operations manager. Salas has worked at the planetarium since 1990, when he started out as a student at CU. Twenty-seven years later, he’s become an iconic part of the planetarium family. With inclusivity close to his heart, Salas and a current student are working on a new presentation to extend the planetarium’s education and entertainment to Spanish-speaking audiences. He also has plans to diversify the cultures represented in constellation presentations. Most astronomy presentations focus on Greek and Roman mythology, but Salas would like to include Aztec and Native American legends about our stars as well.

Students Take the Reins

Salas’s student assistants are integral to the planetarium’s work. Students operate the new projector for shows and create their own animations set to their favorite music for Liquid Sky shows. Undergrad and grad students also lend their expertise to some of the most popular live talks at the planetarium. Beginning in the spring, a new presentation called “The Science of Sci-Fi” will explore the futuristic technology in science-fiction stories and investigate the plausibility of recurring topics, such as time travel. The planetarium works with students to bring their visions to the big screen in many ways, including one that extended all the way into the stratosphere last summer.

Entrance to the planetarium on the CU campus. (photo by sara bruskin)

When Ph.D. student Viliam Klein designed a project for filming the shadow of the eclipse as it passed across Earth’s surface last August, Fiske Planetarium helped fund his vision. A high-altitude helium balloon lifted Klein’s film equipment more than 100,000 feet into the air to capture the moon’s shadow as it traversed our planet. That footage is part of a presentation at the planetarium on Dec. 7 and 8, along with a Q&A session with the launch and recovery team.

The planetarium’s offerings are largely shaped by students and community members who contribute their own content or suggest what they’d like to see. Visitors can make their own experience, and that’s especially true when they rent the planetarium for private events. Birthday parties, weddings, corporate events, concerts and graduation parties have turned Fiske into a unique and unforgettable venue. Many guests also head over to the Sommers-Bausch Observatory on Friday evenings for free telescope viewings that are open to the public.

Incoming director Keller has big plans to expand community-engagement projects, so keep an eye out for new developments at this wonderful local resource, our neighborhood planetarium.

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