Reach for the stars

Funds needed for new planetarium projector

MARQUETTE — There’s nothing like looking at a clear night sky with numerous stars and other astronomical objects visible to the naked eye and, if you’re fortunate, a really good telescope.

Knowing the constellations, planets and other objects adds to the experience, and attending shows at the Shiras Planetarium, located at Marquette Senior High School, helps in that regard.

It also helps if the facility has a decent projector.

Becky Simmons, a science teacher at MSHS and planetarium director, expressed concern about the current optical-mechanical projector, a Minolta ms8.

“It shows just the star fields,” Simmons said, which means it depicts a star-filled sky seen just as if an observer were outside.

The planetarium also used to have a digital projector that showed movies and content to embellish astronomy shows.

Unfortunately, the facility lost that projector in 2014, and Simmons said fundraising has taken place since then to replace it.

Then there’s the aging current Minolta projector, which she noted is nearing the end of its lifespan.

“It’s obsolete at this point,” Simmons said. “We can find some parts for it, but they don’t make parts for it, so we’re always sourcing parts. We have a good relationship with a company that does find them for us usually, but they’ve even said that it’s coming to the end of its time.”

It could last a few more years, she said, or it could die tomorrow.

“We don’t want to make people think that once we get that projector we’re done, and so we’re trying to go after, really, the entire solution,” said Simmons pointed out a new digital projection system — a quality one — costs about $600,000. Just a digital projector, on the other hand, costs around $300,000.

The inexpensive system wouldn’t be the best way to go since a long-term solution is key, she said.

“It doesn’t last as long,” Simmons said. “It doesn’t do all the things we need it to do.”

The $300,000 piece of equipment would last about five years, while the planetarium would get 10 years out of the $600,000 projector, she said.

A long-term solution means long-term planning.

“We’re trying to pick something that would allow us to generate income in here and have enough capability that we could actually utilize it in the ways that our teachers want,” Simmons said.

Since the planetarium has education as a focus, she stressed the facility requires features other than what would be found in a regular planetarium.

That means current teaching standards have to be considered, she said.

Better technology and modern software also mean better images.

“We can use actual footage from satellites and actually zoom around the universe and see what the International Space Station sees,” Simmons said. “You can see things live. You know, if someone wants to see Venus, I can zoom them out and taken them to Venus.”

Also, live-stream climate data can be pulled up for a discussion, she said.

Still, financial challenges remain, although Simmons acknowledged Marquette Area Public Schools is in good standing.

“We’re in the black,” she said. “We operate well. We make good choices, and that’s why.”

So, she said issues such as class sizes and lead in water pipes must take precedence over a planetarium, although MAPS hasn’t indicated it’s unwilling to provide some money.

Fortunately for the planetarium, the Shiras Foundation has offered to help.

Simmons said the foundation, which built the planetarium, is committing $100,000.

The building’s origins sprung from a Soviet satellite.

“At the time of Sputnik, there were lots of grants to get this type of technology in the schools,” said Simmons, with the school district acquiring a grant — with no building in which to put the technology. The foundation provided that add-on.

The Shiras Foundation also is assisting with fundraising, seeking out prominent families in the Marquette area for possible financial help, Simmons said.

However, she acknowledged it’s a difficult problem to solve, although if someone commits money, it can be paid over time.

“When we get people in here looking at it, they’re overwhelmed,” Simmons said.

That’s easy to understand since Simmons said it would cost $1.5 million to include other amenities such as furniture and lights.

Properly funding the Shiras Planetarium might take a community effort.

“It’s time now for everybody to come to the table, and let’s solve it together,” Simmons said. “If we pause much longer, we’re going to lose the planetarium and not have any equipment in here at all to run.”

Scott Stobbelaar, a member of the Marquette Astronomical Society, issued a statement on behalf of the MAS in support of the planetarium.

“As a former director of the Shiras Planetarium and a member of the Marquette Astronomical Society, I am deeply interested in the continuation of the planetarium,” Stobbelaar said. “MAS will help in any way we can to keep the planetarium open. We feel fortunate the Marquette has such a fine facility to simulate the real sky and teach astronomy.”

An invitation-only event is scheduled for Oct. 18 at the planetarium where the Shiras Foundation will talk with people about the facility’s needs. Also, a crowdsourcing effort, which will last until Christmas break, will be launched that day, she said.

If interested, contact Simmons at rsimmons@mapsnet.org.