Under a 30-foot starry dome, planetarium volunteers 'alter time and bend it to our will'
January 1st, Mary Katherine Martin for the Juneau Empire
Juneau, Alaska. At about 7 p.m. Dec. 29, around 40 Juneauites took a journey through space and time to New Zealand, on Dec. 19.
They weren't time travelers or teleporters. They didn't even board an airplane. Instead, they took their journey in the planetarium inside the Marie Drake building.
Juneau's planetarium has been around for longer than many Juneauites, but it's still quite common for people not to know it exists.
"I run into people that have been here for decades and didn't know it was here," said volunteer Dolly Kremers. "It's just gone by the wayside."
For quite a few years, one of those people was self-described amateur astronomer Clark Branch. He and volunteer John Kremers on Tuesday led talks on the night sky, pointing out the North Star (one of the brightest objects in the sky, the stars close by appear to spin around it), talking about ways to tell planets from stars (stars twinkle, planets don't) pointing out constellations (Gemini, Orion, a Juneau-specific constellation that depicts former volunteer Michael Orelove as a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat.)
Last Tuesday, the show focused on theories about the Christmas star. Was it a conjunction of planets? A supernova? A comet? Other evenings have featured yoga under the stars, "drive-in" movie nights, and more.
The planetarium, built in the 1960s, dates to the days when the Juneau School District had an astronomy teacher.
There are clear marks on the floor from where the planetarium's bolted down reclining seats were removed â€” and never replaced â€” so that the room could be used for storage in the 1980s. It was rescued by a small but dedicated group of volunteers in 1991.
For the last 18 years, it's been kept in operation by that informal group, the Friends of the Marie Drake Planetarium. The Kremers, said Branch, are "the rock" of the current volunteer group.
Juneau Community Schools helps out with scheduling and printing. The school district does maintenance on the room, but the volunteers are the stewards of the planetarium. The group also collects money for repairs, but the machine is old. In a digital world, parts are expensive and hard to come by.
Joyce Kitka of Community Schools said there is only one person in the United States who does maintenance on the "star ball." Volunteers recently bought two new bulbs on eBay, she said.
A missing lens means there are sometimes two suns in the sky, and planets don't always move where they're supposed to.
"It's got problems, but it still functions to some degree anyway," said John Kremers. "It's getting old; the light bulbs are kind of weak that project the stars ... they wear out after a while. You can't buy them anymore ... so it's kind of one of those things that at some point the school system will make a decision."
That decision will most likely come whenever the Marie Drake building is renovated, he said.
"It's really sad, because it's an incredible facility," said Kitka. "We want to make sure it's protected because it's virtually impossible to repair."
Despite the needed improvements, the aging planetarium retains its capacity to "alter time and bend it to our will," as Branch puts it.
"You can learn a lot by going outside and looking at the stars," said Kremers. "This gives you an opportunity when the stars aren't always available to learn about the constellations, how the planets work, how the sun interacts with the Earth in its orbit. It's also beneficial because it encourages kids that may not have any knowledge to seek more information ... and some might go on to have more interest in science than they might otherwise."
One of those kids is 9-year-old Isabella Bugayong, who helps with the raffle and the star machine. She also designs posters.
"I like it," she said. "I'm interested in the planets."
The Bugayongs started coming several years ago because it was close and free, said Isabella's mother, Mindy. "It's always been fun," she said.
The family also now seeks out planetariums on vacation, recently visiting the California Academy of Sciences.
The planetarium is also regularly used by a class at Yaakoosge Daakahidi Alternative High School, occasionally by some Juneau School District teachers, by the University of Alaska Southeast and individual groups like the Boy Scouts and the Girl Scouts.
"We try to accommodate as much as we can if groups want to (come)," said Kremers. "We welcome groups to call us if they have special needs."
The group also is looking for volunteers.
The planetarium is open Tuesday evenings from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. except the last Tuesday of the month, when the group offers a special show from 6:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m..
"Everything at the planetarium is free," said Kremers. "There's no charge for coming in to see the show and learning how to use the machine. Our goal is to keep the planetarium used. Really, right now, this group is the only user of the planetarium."
The winter solstice occurs exactly when the Earth's tilt is the farthest away from the sun at its maximum axial tilt of 23 degrees, 26 minutes. This moment will occur at 10:38 p.m. Tuesday. Although the winter solstice lasts only an instant in time, the celebration of this moment can take days depending on where you are in the world. Contained within this moment of tilt is the notion we are moving from increasing darkness to increasing light. This is powerful imagery, regardless of your cultural orientation. However, for many cultures this moment of winter solstice signifies rebirth and involves elaborate festivals and rituals.
If you lived in China or East Asia you would likely be caught up in one of the most important festivals of the year and preparing for family gatherings involving meals with sticky rice. The origins of these festivals can be traced back to the philosophy of yin and yang, of bringing balance and harmony in the cosmos into your daily life. Celebrating the turning point when days become longer symbolizes the increase in positive energy that should now be flowing in.
If Ireland was your home and you were interested in the ancient ways of the Druids, you would probably be one of many registering for lottery tickets to see the display of light illuminating the chamber floor of the Newgrange tomb in County Meath. Apparently, once a year on winter solstice, light pierces through the roof chambers to light up the inner floor for 17 minutes. This display of light is considered too precise for it to have been created by chance. Viewing this display of light on winter solstice is now so popular in Ireland, a lottery must be held for viewing tickets.
In Ancient Greece, the winter solstice ritual was called Lenaea, the Festival of the Wild Women. In very ancient times, a man representing the harvest god Dionysos was torn to pieces and eaten by a gang of women on this day. Later in the ritual, Dionysos would be reborn as a baby. Fortunately, by classical times, the human sacrifice had been replaced by the killing of a goat and eventually the women's role had changed to that of funeral mourners and observers of the birth. At this time, wine miracles were performed by the priests. Priests would seal water or juice in a room overnight and the next day they would have turned into wine. The miracle was said to have been performed by Dionysos.
Here in America's older cultures, the Hopi and Zuni Indians have priests whose special duty it is to observe the annual course of the sun, and hence to determine the dates for the great festivals of the winter and summer solstices. The celebration starts when the Zuni sun priest stands on a petrified stump commonly located at the outskirts of the village and prays and sprinkles corn meal to honor the Sun Father's return from the South. For Zuni's the winter solstice is the start of the month they call Turning Back.
If you live in Fairbanks, you would likely be attending the Winter Solstice Festival hosted by downtown businesses or signing up for the solstice snowshoe race. But here in Juneau the recognition of winter solstice is more of a private moment. For some it is an important psychological moment to get us through our cabin fever. Just knowing the days will be getting longer, actually gaining minutes by Wednesday, is uplifting.
For me, winter solstice is about celebrating light and regaining balance in my life. Although I have had my share of "wild women" moments, I will not be sacrificing goats. The closest connection I will make to the celebrations of Ancient Greece will be to raise a glass of wine while sharing a beach fire with friends. But then again, there will be a full moon Tuesday. There just may be some wild women howling at the moon.
â€¢ Troll is a long-time Alaskan with more than 22 years of experience in fisheries, coastal policy and energy policy. She resides in Douglas.
Juneau residents may have missed the partial eclipse of the moon Thursday morning due to an untimely sunrise and moonset, but it's unlikely they missed the brilliant fullness that graced clear skies New Year's Eve.
It's uniqueness stems from the rare alignment of both the lunar calendar and solar calendar and it's popularity from folklore.
Jason Ginter, a volunteer with the Marie Drake Planetarium, said the "blue moon," as it's called, is when two full moons fall in the same month.
In this case, the first full moon was on Dec. 2.
And Ginter said, it's all about timing.
"The lunar month is a little bit shorter than a calendar month, about 29 days, which is how 'blue moons' are even possible," he said. "It's very rare for the dates to match up like this."
"Well, once in a blue moon," Ginter said.
But by the numbers, they occur every 2.5 years. The last time there was a lunar double-take was in May 2007. The next is scheduled for August 31, 2012. But New Year's Eve blue moons are even rarer and occur every 19 years. The last time this combination graced the skies was in 1990; the next one won't come again until 2028.
Despite it's descriptive name, a blue moon doesn't actually turn blue. The name, however, came about after a writer for Sky & Telescope magazine in 1946 misinterpreted the Marine Farmer's Almanac and labeled a blue moon as the second full moon in a month. In fact, the almanac defined a blue moon as the third full moon in a season with four full moons, not the usual three. In folklore, too the name appears. Each moon was named according to its time of year and a moon that came too early had no name, so it was called a "blue moon."
Lunar eclipses, on the other hand, happen somewhat frequently, Ginter said.
"A couple times a year and always when the moon is full," he said. "It's when the earth passes in front of the sun and blocks the light that's going to the moon. Then there's a partial eclipse, which means that it wasn't blocked completely. Usually the moon will go sort of reddish because of light refraction around the earth. And sometimes a partial (eclipse) will make it look like there's a big chunk missing from the moon."
But this particular lunar eclipse was one Juneau residents were not able to see. Nikki Becker, a hydro meteorologicial technician with the National Weather Service, said our moonset this morning was at 8:19 a.m. - about four minutes prior to the sunrise and when the partial eclipse was scheduled to occur.
Anchorage residents, however, were able to see the event. The Associated Press reported that the eclipse was visible between 9:52 a.m. and 10:52 a.m.
Ginter said there are no other notable events scheduled with celestial bodies on the horizon. He did say, however, that the frequency of the aurora borealis, a phenomenon caused by sun spot activity, may be on the rise in coming years.
"We're at the bottom of a 11-year cycle," he said. "It's only just beginning to pick up."