Marie Drake Planetarium

Where the stars always shine in Juneau, Alaska

Newspaper Articles - 2002

Astronomy buffs seek clear skies over Juneau

 February 14 by Amy Maio for The Juneau Empire 

Bill Leighty recalls his interest in stargazing began in his childhood, when he spent his summer days contemplating the meaning of the universe and his place in it.

"You're just out in the summer and lying in the grass, looking up at the sky and wondering what it's all about," he said. "I think humans have a sense of connectedness to the Earth, and want to understand their place in it."

His wife, Nancy Waterman, shared in his enthusiasm. When their children were living at home, the couple took them along on stargazing expeditions. The family pondered the same questions Leighty had as a child, but also talked about Waterman's interests as well.

"I really like just observing the moon and being aware of (its) phases," Waterman said. "And then you can't help but speculate about what it would be like to travel to the moon."

Scot Tiernan's interest in stargazing began when he was a child, "probably because I grew up in a place where I could see stars," he said. But part of it also stems from his military career.

"I used to spend time on aircraft carriers in the Navy, and all you see is stars," he said.

Moments of astral enjoyment can be few and far between in Juneau. While stargazing requires little in the way of fancy equipment, it does require clear skies, a rarity in Southeast Alaska. Visible stars are more common in winter than summer, because there's less daylight to interfere. But many local stargazers offered the same one-word piece of advice to those wanting to enjoy the nighttime scenery: "Leave."

"If I wanted to see the stars, I wouldn't be in Juneau," said Michael Orelove, a volunteer at the Marie Drake Planetarium.

Leighty has even scouted out some of the better places outside of Juneau to go gazing.

"The closest place to Juneau to get a clear sky is Whitehorse," he said with a laugh. "I (stargaze) when I'm in California."

But on those occasions when Juneau's generally cloudy conditions give way to clear skies, the winter sky offers a variety of viewing opportunities for those who know where to look.

Because of the Earth's current position in the galaxy, Mars, Jupiter and Venus are very prominent in the evening sky, said Don Greenberg, an astronomy professor at the University of Alaska Southeast. Mars is the brightest star and is in the west-southwest corner of the sky. Visible between twilight and 10 p.m., it is distinguished by a somewhat reddish color. Jupiter is the second brightest object in the sky after the moon, and is what people looking at the sky usually see this time of year.

"When people are going out right now and say, 'What's that really bright thing?' it's usually Jupiter they're talking about," Greenberg said.

The constellations Taurus and Orion are also visible in the winter skies. Orion, between Saturn and Jupiter, is the brightest constellation in Juneau's winter sky. It is identifiable by three stars in a row, which make up the belt of Orion. The Orion constellation contains some of the brightest stars in the winter sky, including Betelgeuse, a "red super giant," and Rijel, a very white, almost bluish looking star, Greenberg said. The Big and Little Dippers, as well as the northern lights, are also extremely visible in Juneau's winter skies.

Enjoying the winter lights doesn't require the use of expensive telescopes. In the majority of cases, the naked eye or a pair of inexpensive binoculars is sufficient. And in some cases, the use of a high-powered telescope, or even a pair of binoculars, hinders viewing.

"If you're looking at something like a comet, you don't want to look through a telescope because (it) only gives you a very small piece of the sky," Orelove said. The best instrument for these phenomena is "just the naked eye."

While the planets are visible with the naked eye, a telescope is necessary in order to see details, Orelove added. Yet even in those cases an inexpensive one can do the job.

"With a small-powered, inexpensive telescope, you could see the rings of Saturn," he said. "You could see Jupiter and four of its largest moons."

While winter stargazing can be fun even if one can't identify planets and constellations, the enjoyment level is increased if gazers are prepared for what they can see and where to look for it, Leighty said.

The Marie Drake Planetarium offers monthly discussions on different topics. Star charts available on the Internet and in magazines such as Sky & Telescope identify visible stars and their location in the sky. Greenberg's astronomy class, which Waterman and Tiernan have taken, is another option.

Where one chooses to view the winter skies is an important consideration. The best locations are dark, open expanses not hemmed in by nearby trees, Greenberg said. Downtown lights and mountains can also hinder viewing.

Auke Village Recreation Area is a popular viewing spot, as are Skater's Cabin and Eagle Beach. Waterman and Leighty often drive down Thane Road on clear nights. And for those more adventurous gazers, Tiernan suggests a nighttime paddle out to Windfall Island.

Like any outdoor activity, it's important to keep warm when stargazing. Nighttime temperatures can sometimes drop to the single digits, so proper gear is a necessity.

"Make sure you're dressed in something warm and layered, so you can stay as long as you want to," Waterman said. Often she will bring a thermos of hot tea along, as well as a sleeping bag to snuggle up with Leighty and keep warm.

"I have arctic gear, and I bought 100-degree-below boots just to do this with," Tiernan said. "I can stay out for quite a while without getting cold."

In spite of Juneau's generally overcast conditions and frigid temperatures, stargazers persist in their hobby, they say, because it's fun.

"It's kind of a giant puzzle," Waterman said. "There's 88 constellations, and once you know the Big Dipper, it's easy to learn where the Little Dipper is. And then it's fun in our Juneau sky to put the puzzle together and recognize the constellations."

"I'm one of the people who have gone to see a few total solar eclipses," Orelove said.

"That's absolutely spectacular. I've also seen a meteor shower. I've seen Haley's comet and Hale-Bopp comet. The unusual things are fun to see," he said. "But in Juneau anytime you get to see stars it's exciting."

Tough choice for music lovers Saturday
 January 31, 2002 by By RILEY WOODFORD THE JUENAU EMPIRE

Lovers of Irish and classical music will be torn Saturday night, forced to chose between an excellent Irish concert and a stellar performance of the Juneau Symphony.

Fortunately, the symphony also performs Sunday afternoon, offering a rare encore concert. The symphony will feature a Gypsy-flavored work by Bartok, highlighting the talents of violinist and concertmaster Steve Tada; a Mozart piano concerto with soloist Daniel Wallen Gruenberg; and a visually adventurous rendition of Holst's popular suite "The Planets."

Tada has long been a fan of Gypsy music. He also has a connection to Bartok; Tada's violin teacher was an associate of the Hungarian composer and a consummate master of his music. This concert is a great opportunity to see Tada showcased as a soloist.

Earlier this season the symphony featured tone paintings - compositions that evoked images and pictures - in a performance. Holst's music in "The Planets" may conjure visions of the cosmos in the imagination, but the symphony will make sure the audience sees galaxies, nebulae and our solar system in the auditorium.

The symphony has arranged to have about 50 astronomical images, photographed through the orbiting Hubble telescope and from an observatory in Australia, projected during the concert. Friends of the Marie Drake Planetarium also will be on hand in the lobby with hands-on displays and astronomy exhibits.


Local groups create Marine Park sundial

May 22, 2002
For the Juneau Empire

The sundial on the sidewalk at Marine Park uses a person's shadow to tell the time. Local school classes and volunteer organizations painted each of the numbers on the sundial. More than 36 local groups painted the numbers and produced a community work of art which also tells the time.

Michael Orelove, the project timekeeper and coordinator, saw a sundial in Seattle 20 years before that used a person's shadow to tell the time, and wanted to do a similar project in Juneau.

"I thought of making a human sundial in a small clearing in the woods for hikers to find," he said. "It would be a very simple sundial with the hour numbers painted on a few rocks."

The idea was revived a few years ago when Orelove's niece, Eden, worked on a sundial project for the high school science fair. Orelove helped her with her project and after the science fair, they decided to do a large sundial for the community.

"There are various scientific and astronomical principles involved with sundials, and this project helps explain them in a fun way," Eden said. "We wanted to get as many school classes and local volunteer organizations involved as possible."

Groups were invited to join the project by painting numbers on the sundial.

A plan was put together and submitted to the mayor's office and a meeting was scheduled. Orelove and Eden met with Mayor Sally Smith and discussed the community's sundial project. The mayor liked the idea. A few weeks later the project received approval and the city supplied white and yellow traffic paint to get the project started.

Over the next few months, as weather permitted, the true north/south line was determined; the hour coordinates were laid out by Marie Drake Planetarium volunteers; the Boy Scouts painted the hour circles; local schools and organizations painted the numbers; and the sundial was dedicated on the summer solstice of 2001.

The following organizations and schools painted one of the numbers of either the Alaska Standard Time or the Daylight Saving Time hours on the sundial:

Juneau 4-H Clubs, Juneau Arts and Humanities Council, Perseverance Theatre, Friends of the Flags, U.S. Coast Guard 17th District, Juneau Pioneers' Home, Juneau Rotary Clubs, Juneau Special Olympics, Juneau Sister Cities, Sentinel Island Lighthouse, Tongass Alaska Girl Scouts, local volunteers, University of Alaska Southeast, AWARE, Boy Scouts of America, Juneau Audubon Society, Trail Mix, Last Chance Mining Museum, Disabled American Veterans, Riverbend School Rally, Tlingit and Haida Head Start, Juneau Dance Unlimited, Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, KTOO, Juneau International Folkdancers, Daughters of the New Moon, Marie Drake Planetarium, Big Brothers/Big Sisters, Juneau Community Charter School, REACH, League of Women Voters, Juneau Joeys Clown Alley No. 310, Juneau Raptor Center, Alaska Folk Festival, Volunteer Firefighters and Juneau Montessori School.


Letter to Juneau Empire
The musicians and board of the Juneau Symphony join me in thanking everyone who attended our Cosmic Adventure concerts in early February. It was a great concert, and is it especially wonderful to play to such appreciative audiences.

Special thanks to the following individuals, businesses and organizations for their support:

The Friends of Marie Drake Planetarium, with whom the Symphony was fortunate to collaborate for Cosmic Adventure. In addition to providing lobby displays and coloring pages for children of all ages, planetarium volunteers Michael Orelove, Scot Tiernan, Jason Ginter, Steve Kocsis, Patty Zimmerman, Erik Kellogg, and Chad Guertin worked create a visually stunning slide show that accompanied Holst's The Planets.
See you at the Symphony!
Kyle Wiley Pickett

A trip through the solar system

Local organizations and volunteers bring the planets to Twin Lakes
August 30, 2002 by CHRISTINE SCHMID for THE JUNEAU EMPIRE 

The distance of Pluto from the sun is 3,666,000,000 miles. In Juneau, people can make the trip by walking, biking or skating 5,280 feet.

Volunteers from various nonprofit organizations and schools in Juneau, led by Marie Drake Planetarium volunteer Michael Orelove, have spent sunny days this summer painting a walkable solar system on the Twin Lakes walking trail.

On Sunday, an opening celebration for the planet walk will allow people to get an idea of the relative size of the planets in our solar system.

"I thought it would be a fun way to teach astronomy," said Orelove, who proposed the idea to the city Parks and Recreation Advisory Committee in June. "I also thought it was a fun way to honor different nonprofit organizations as well as different school classes."

Volunteers from the Juneau Raptor Center, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Southeast Alaska, the Southeast Alaska Conservation Council, Juneau Mountain Rescue, the Daughters of the New Moon, KTOO and the Juneau Pioneers' Home, as well as students from the Riverbend Elementary School and the Juneau Montessori School and a former firefighter, contributed their artistic talents to the project.

"We tried to let every group have some sort of connection to the planet they were painting," Orelove said. "Daughters of the New Moon, the belly-dancing group, they wear a lot of rings. So we gave them Saturn, because of its rings. KTOO plays a lot of tunes, so we gave them Neptune," he said.

The spacing of the planets is based on a scale that places Pluto exactly one mile from the sun, whose painted version is under the swing set at Twin Lakes. Orelove's niece, Eden Orelove, calculated the relative sizes and distances of the planets.

"If we used the same scale for both size and distance, Pluto would be 42 miles away," Eden said.

Michael Orelove heard of planet walks in an astronomy magazine.

"There are planet walks all over the world, and I thought this would be a neat type of thing for Juneau," Orelove said.

He originally thought of using the road system to make a planet drive instead of a planet walk, which would have allowed the relative size and distance of the planets to be on the same scale, but decided that a walking tour in a family-friendly location would be better.

Steve Cosgrove, the chief painter in the project, is happy with the results.

"I learned a lot more about astronomy," he said. "It was a really fun project, and it's great to see that the kids are enjoying it."

The celebration will take place at noon on Sunday, rain or shine.

"We'll have a few speeches and see if we can get a cannon to fire off and get a 'big bang' to symbolize the start of the universe," Orelove said.

He expects people to participate on foot, bikes or in-line skates, but he believes that "most people, in their own imaginations, will be in some sort of space ship bound for the stars."


Young players stage ancient drama

Perseverance's youth theater troupe tackles honor, self-righteousness and a higher law in its production of 'Antigone'
Posted: Thursday, October 24, 2002
By RILEY WOODFORD for The Juneau Empire

Sometimes sticking up for a brother can get a girl killed

Antigone, the heroine of Sophocles' classic play, defies her family and the law of the land to do what she believes is right. This weekend Perseverance Theatre's Young Shakespeare Training Company brings the Greek drama "Antigone" to life in Juneau.

As the company's name implies, members tend to focus on drama 2,000 years newer than this ancient Greek play. But after doing several Shakespearean plays in the past couple of years it was time for a change, said Anita Maynard-Losh, who heads up the program at Perseverance and directs "Antigone." Theater intern Christy Burgess of Anchorage is assistant director.

"We wanted to explore a different classical period and do a shorter piece," Maynard-Losh said. "These kids have all done Shakespeare with me in the past, and in the summer (with the Perseverance STAR program), and we're doing Shakespeare again in the spring."

"Antigone," written about 450 B.C., is the final play in the Oedipus cycle. Sophocles offers the conventions of classic Greek drama, which complements the training that performing Shakespeare provides theater students.

"The structure of Greek drama is very interesting," Maynard-Losh said. "It has great language and characters, and a formal, classical structure. It's great for the students to have the opportunity to see a formal structure and physicalize it, rather than just read about in textbooks like they will in college."

The Greek dramatic convention of the chorus figures prominently in the play. The chorus uses dance movement, chants and poetic language to help tell the story and comment on the action.

"The chorus is cool," said actor Kai Christian, 12, who plays the part of the messenger and is a member of the chorus. "Sometimes I think of them as the muses, other times as the little villager people, and sometimes they are the voice of reason."

The play is set in the city of Thebes. Antigone's two brothers are vying for the throne and her uncle Kreon hands it to one and banishes the other. The brothers fight and kill each other. Kreon names one brother a hero and the other a traitor.

"The one who fought for Thebes is buried with honor, and the one who fought against is left to be eaten by the dogs and crows," Maynard-Losh said. "Kreon says that anyone who touches the body will be killed."

Antigone wants to bury her brother with honor, out of respect to him and her religious beliefs, and she does it in defiance of the law.

"She has a great part of the speech where she says, 'I'll be spending more of my existence in the afterlife than I will in this life, so I need to please the gods more than I need to please man,' which is an interesting way of seeing things," Maynard-Losh said. "She believes the laws of the gods are more important than the laws of man."

The play will be staged at an unusual venue, the Marie Drake Planetarium. The relatively small room is square with a circular dome. Christian said although the room has a funky echo in some spots, she thinks it is a cool space for a play.

"The audience is on all sides," she said. "It's a challenge having to talk to everyone without looking like a ballerina in a music box turning around in circles."