In a town where it's par for the course to walk around with one's head in the clouds, it makes sense that Juneau would have a planetarium. What comes as a surprise is that Juneau's planetarium happens to be largest one from Seattle to Fairbanks, with a 30-foot diameter.
The Marie Drake Planetarium, located between Harborview Elementary School and the Juneau-Douglas High School, was installed in 1967. It was staffed by local resident Albert Shaw until the early 1970s, when its purpose shifted to more of a storage area and place for visiting basketball teams to sleep.
Beginning in 1990, with momentum initiated by Bill Leighty and Nancy Waterman, the space was restored to serve its original intention, as an astronomy educational tool for the community. It is run by a group of volunteers who, last summer, formed a nonprofit, Friends of the Marie Drake Planetarium (FOMDP). Though the purpose of the nonprofit is to continue the promotion of astronomy education, the primary goal is to raise funds to upgrade the 45-year old projector.
The current analog projector still operates well, but it is limited to project stargazing from locations on Earth. A digital projector would be able to show views from locations throughout our galaxy. It would also allow for the open source shows to be used from online databases. The cost of a digital projector is estimated at around $90,000. Through a garage sale and grants from the Douglas-Dornan Foundation (via the Juneau Community Foundation), Holland America and the Juneau Lions Club, FOMDP has raised a few thousand dollars, though they have quite a bit of effort ahead to reach the mark.
In the meantime, the Planetarium hosts hour-long shows the last Tuesday of every month, led by volunteers, with the exception of June, July and August, when science fiction films are featured. The shows are free, though donations are accepted. Most of the Tuesday night shows begin with a viewing called "The Stars Tonight," where visitors can see what it would look like if it was both dark and clear. According to the FOMDP president, Cristina Della Rosa, the Planetarium's unofficial motto is, "Where the Stars Always Shine." Examples of past show subjects include the Big Bang, celestial navigation and, most recently, black holes.
Steve Kocsis, the FOMDP board secretary and Della Rosa's husband, led the black hole presentation. Kocsis, who has been volunteering at the Planetarium since 1998, is not an astronomer by formal training - he's a retired applied mathematician - but he's been visiting and volunteering with planetariums since he was in high school.
As Kocsis prepared his PowerPoint presentation Della Rosa warmed up the audience.
"How many black holes fit on the end of a pin?" Della Rosa asked.
"None," someone volunteered.
"At least one," another guessed.
"As many as it takes to suck up the pin," said another person.
"Are you ready?" Della Rosa asked. "All of them. Black holes compress matter from stars and planets, all the gravity into a tiny spot."
Della Rosa describes herself as an astronomy humorist. She's published a few electronic books including, most recently, "Your Galaxy Needs You: Astronomy, Astronaut and Alien Humor." Before she retired to the back of the audience on the night of the black hole presentation, she concluded the evening's introduction by noting that a surplus thrift store in Roswell, N.M. is called The Black Hole.
When Kocsis was cued, he began by giving a list of examples of what a black hole is not. It's not a movie, or a financial tool or a punk rock band. It is, he said, while flashing a Wikipedia screenshot onto the south side of the Planetarium's curved hemisphere, "An object with sufficient density that the force of gravity prevents anything from escaping from it except through quantum tunneling behavior."
Kocsis ran through slides of instrumental people, equations, dates and theories behind our current understanding of black holes, as well as reviewing their anatomy. The presentation was punctuated by frequent questions, encouraged at most presentations. Kocsis threw out phrases and vocabulary like, "Jets of highly energetic energy beams," "Accretion discs," "Magnetic flux lines," "Event horizons" and "Naked singularities."
Black holes, he explained, are at the center of every galaxy, but we can't see them yet, though we will likely be able to do so in the future. We can see their effects; distorted stars behind the holes and spirals of gasses sucked into them, though not the holes themselves.
Kocsis went on to explain that the term black hole is a rather clumsy phrase. It's neither black nor a hole.
"It's not black because it gives off some radiation," he said. "It's not a hole because the center is a 'singularity,' which no one knows what it is; it could be a tunnel to another universe."
"It is now thought that black holes are instrumental to the structure of our universe," Kocisis said. "If there was one close to us, even light years from us, we'd be gone."
An audience member asked if he would voluntarily enter one, if he could. He wouldn't.
The audience varied in their ability to digest and contribute to the presentation. This is sort of the point. Kocsis said that the shows are catered to all ages though Della Rosa countered him.
"It's very hard to have a talk for everybody," she said. "To talk to people from five years to adults would be difficult."
However the visuals alone can be entertaining for younger participants, and those who are curious about genuinely furthering their astronomy education are welcome to ask questions and interact with other knowledgeable attendees.
The September Planetarium show will be given by FOMDP board member Ken Fix. Fix will be speaking on the topic of, "Ares, Mars and the Three Robotic Rovers." According to the Planetarium's website, Fix will share some "Mythology and information about Mars and the surveyors and rovers which have and continue to explore Mars."
Over the last year and a half, Fix has given a series of mythology presentations, starting with the planet Mercury. September's show will be covering some territory previously explored during a Mars presentation, but with the addition of material about the rover Curiosity, that landed on Mars this August. Fix explained that the other two Mars rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, are the size of coffee tables, compared to Curiosity, which is more like a small Sport Utility Vehicle. Though Spirit and Opportunity were advancements from the Mars Viking landers from the 1970s, they are limited in the distance they can explore.
"Opportunity is still moving," Fix said, but "Spirit is stuck in a sand trap. There isn't a way of getting it out."
The Ares part of the presentation comes from Greek mythology.
"Ares is the name of the chaotic god of war and conflict," Fix said. "The Romans changed the name to Mars, but essentially it's the same God, with the same attributes."
The show begins at 6:30 p.m. on Sept. 25.
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 necessary repairs, but the machine is old, and 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 that does maintenance on the "star ball." Volunteers recently bought two new bulbs on e-bay, 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."
October's Planetarium show will be given by John Kremers, the FOMDR board treasurer. Kremers' presentation, "Bad Astronomy," will cover the misconceptions people have about astronomy.
For more information on the Marie Drake Planetarium, including upcoming shows dates and topics, the history of the Planetarium or for information on how to help with funding a new projector, visit www.mariedrakeplanetarium.com.
Amanda Compton is the staff writer for the Capital City Weekly. She can be reached at Amanda.firstname.lastname@example.org.
Friends of the Marie Drake Planetarium board members Steve Kocsis and wife Cristina Della Rosa stand in front of the 44-year-old Spitz A3P analog projector.