Downing planetarium marks one-year anniversary

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Downing planetarium marks one-year anniversary

The Downing Planetarium at California State University, Fresno , which celebrates its first anniversary on April 8, is “universally” popular with children and adults throughout the San Joaquin Valley.

In the first year, nearly 25,000 people scanned the artificial heavens from the comfort of the planetarium’s recliner chairs. They watched programs that combine science, mythology and history, and viewed a constellation tour, all projected on a 30-foot dome.

Dr. Steven J. White, a Fresno State physics professor and planetarium director, is pleased with the attendance figures. “Our goal is to bring astronomy to the public,” he said. “Dr. Downing

[planetarium benefactor] wanted it accessible and affordable for children and the public. We’re running this more as a museum. That’s good for the sciences and just a nice thing for the people of Fresno and the Valley. And it’s available for our Fresno State students, too.”

Few campuses of the California State University system have planetariums, and none of them focuses on public programming, as Downing Planetarium does.

White and student assistants constantly work on preparing new programs, which take 100-200 hours each, depending on complexity. That involves individual handling of 200-300 slides, which are placed in 29 projectors throughout the dome, and preparing and coordinating CD soundtrack and video clips on laser disk players. Then, a computer is programmed to run the precision changes that make a show run smoothly.

Among the improvements at the planetarium in the first year was a new star projector and specially built sound-proofing cabinets for the slide projectors.

This spring, a new, domed observatory will be added outside the planetarium to house a 16-inch telescope. A computer-controlled digital camera will allow White to run the telescope from inside the planetarium and project images from space onto the dome. The telescope also will be used for scientific research by Fresno State students and faculty.

He also would like to have a mural painted in the lobby, get a display built to allow handling of the university’s 10,000-year-old meteorite, a 65-pound iron and nickel specimen that landed in South Africa and create a science museum in the planetarium.

What could be done to take the planetarium to the next level? White suggests an IMAX-type 70mm all-dome movie theater. “There are some great educational films out there and there is nothing like the experience of 70mm projected onto a large dome. It seems so real,” he said.

To help with funding, White is seeking permanent seat sponsorships ($1,000) each and Donor Wall sponsorships for Founders Circle ($5,000 and above) and Sustaining Members ($2,500 to $4,999).

The planetarium was named for Dr. F. Harold Downing, a long-time Fresno orthopedist, who presented the university with gifts totaling $2.3 million for science scholarships and the 74-seat planetarium.

Shows for school groups are screened from one to eight times a day, three days a week. In addition, the planetarium has a Saturday afternoon children’s program, two public shows on Friday evenings and one on Saturday. The planetarium will be closed April 6-15, during the university’s Spring Break.

Admission is $4 for adults and $2 for children and students. For show information call 278-4121; school and civic group reservations 278-4071 or visit the planetarium on the Web at www.downing-planetarium.org.