Efforts underway to reopen field trip destination
There is a planetarium in a circular room tucked away in Fribourgh Hall. About 100 theater chairs circle the room. At one time, the seats held visitors who tilted back to gaze up at the 40-foot diameter dome, but not today.
The projector, the room’s centerpiece, covers the dome in images of space. It is blue and big – at least 10 feet tall and four feet across. It was installed in the 1970s and resembles a giant dumbbell on an axis. It holds a single light, now stuck in a midway position, which bathes the room in an orange glow.
That is just one of various problems; visitors cannot see the stars with the light on.
The planetarium has been completely closed for two years, said Marc Seigar, associate professor of astrophysics with the Department of Physics and Astronomy. The projector has never been functional in his six years at UALR, he said.
In his office, Seigar flips through catalogs for planetarium projectors. It might be possible to repair the projector, he said, but it would be best to buy a new one. But at between $100,000 and $200,000, the cost seems astronomical.
The department is trying to raise the money in various ways. The ecommerce program with the Donaghey College of Engineering and Information recently launched a blog containing pictures of the planetarium at ualrplanetarium.wordpress.com to raise awareness about the planetarium.
Seigar said he hopes the site will encourage individual donations, but the money could also come from a federal grant. Once funds are raised, the planetarium could be operational within months, he said.
With a digital projector, the planetarium could be used as an educational resource, Seigar said.
The current projector depicts the stars as “little dots,” he explained. A digital planetarium would allow astronomy students to see what the constellations look like from different solar systems and to peer into distant nebulas. Microbiology students could also use the planetarium to study the structure of cells.
“Actually seeing things always helps when trying to understand concepts,” Seigar said.
In addition, the planetarium could generate interest in the sciences, Seigar said. If reopened, schools could bring their students to the planetarium on field trips.
“It’s a great recruitment tool,” Seigar said. “If we can get students interested in science at an early age and maintain that interest, then they might go to college and study science.”
Seigar said he would like to see the planetarium build up to having weekly shows. By opening the planetarium to the public and selling tickets to shows, the planetarium could generate revenue, which could be used to hire a planetarium director.
“It pays for itself,” he said.
People often call Seigar to ask about the planetarium and he said he hopes that, if reopened, the planetarium would bring attention to the department. “I think it would be good for the university,” he said.
Until the planetarium has enough funding, however, it serves as a storage room, and its seats are filled with boxes of files instead of visitors.