Marie Drake Planetarium

Where the stars always shine in Juneau, Alaska

2017 Articles

Juneau's planetarium turns 50

By Dick Callahan | For the Capital City Weekly (Feb 8, 2017)

Marie Drake Planetarium is open. People find their seats, they look at the star ball in the center of the room. Above them is the white domed roof thirty-feet across. The place fills to capacity. Parents talk, children squirm, volunteer Steve Kocsis welcomes the group and gives a short presentation on what the planetarium is up to.* Then Clark Branch dims the lights down, down, down until it’s pitch dark except for the dome, which has transformed into a brilliant night sky projected by the star ball. There’s a collective inhale in the room, then a collective, “Woooow.”

“The stars,” Branch says, “were there all the time. Just like stars are out during the daytime. We don’t see them because of the sun.”

There’s a planetarium in town. A little gem, volunteer-run, that would be the envy of much larger communities. Whether it’s a packed public showing or Cub Scouts or Mrs. Kalbrener’s second graders, that “Woooow” is a constant every time the lights go down. You can teach a kid that the stars are out during the daytime but in the planetarium they know it. How in the world did we get such a thing here?

When Marie Drake School was being planned in the mid-1960s, school superintendent Bill Overstreet felt a planetarium would encourage students to pursue science, especially astronomy. In those days we were in the space race with Russia. There was tremendous interest. Overstreet promoted the idea with the school board and they went for it! They got a grant, built the dome (which remains the largest in Alaska) along with the school and in 1967 the Spitz** A3P, which was state of the art in affordable planetarium projectors, landed in Juneau.

It cost $70,000, which would be more than half a million in today’s dollars, not counting the dome—a good deal. For a half-century school children, scouts, university students, astronomy buffs and the public have gone to Marie Drake shows and more than a few Alaskans learned their first stars and constellations there. This elegant piece of machinery-science-art is a marvel; not computerized, it’s all gears and levers, mirrors, and lenses, special angular bulbs and 1,500 finely machined holes in a basketball size, hollow aluminum sphere trailing small clear baskets that send planets and other features sailing across the night. With the press of a lever it drops into or rises slowly out of its podium like a missile silo. The star ball can project the sky as you would see it from anywhere in the world. North Pole, Hawaii, or here in Juneau. We can go to the latitude of New Zealand, see the Southern Cross and watch our northern stars disappear over the horizon as we head south. Not only that, the operator can also take the sky forward and backwards in time. As former volunteer Nancy Waterman put it, “You can drive the universe.”

In the early years there were many classroom shows and the planetarium had a paid position for the astronomy presenter. The room had reclining chairs which made the place a popular meeting venue for other functions. Over the years funding declined. The paid position disappeared. There were fewer shows and competition was keen for space in the school. By the late 1970’s the planetarium’s original chairs were pulled out and the room was used for storage, then later rewired to be a computer lab. For a time the Spitz apparatus mostly sat quiet inside its podium. In 1991 science and renewable energy advocates Bill Leighty and Nancy Waterman connected with science teacher Teal Schneider, who had the keys. Bill, an electrical engineer, describes himself as a tinkerer. He and Nancy went to a week-long planetarium training at Spitz Space Systems in Pennsylvania. The school district funded a technician to come up and service the projector. With that and a group of volunteers Leighty and Waterman put the planets back in the planetarium. I remember people going outside and pointing to constellations we’d just seen on the dome. The Big Dipper’s two pointer stars point to the north star in a line that continues on through the outside star in Cassiopeia “That W looking thing.” and continue down to those four bright stars in a square, “That’s the great square of Pegasus.” We had it. We were more connected between earth and sky than we’d been an hour before.

After Leighty/Waterman, polymath Michael Orelove took the reins at the planetarium for several years. Michael also created the tidal gauge at Marine Park, the sundial on the dock, the planet walk on Twin Lakes, the Juneau time capsule in the Federal Building and other quirky, and free, science exhibits you bump into unexpectedly around town.

Today the planetarium is run by a non-profit corporation, Friends of Marie Drake planetarium. The Friends do public presentations on the last Tuesday of every month during the school year September to May (except this month’s show, The Northern Lights, will be on Monday, February 27). Planetarium shows begin with the night sky as we see it from Juneau then move into a particular astronomy topic. Presentations are generally free to the public but donations are appreciated. For more on the planetarium there is a website www.mariedrakeplanetarium.org. To get regular updates, information on upcoming shows, or if you want to suggest a show, schedule a group showing or volunteer you can contact mariedrakeplanetarium@gmail.com and president Christina Della Rossa will put you on the mailing list.

Wonderful as it is, and still excellent for learning the night sky, seasons, etc. our star ball projector faces limits with aging, as we all must. Bill Leighty says the electrical connections have always been a weak link. Planets can go out of alignment or may simply not work. State of the art planetarium projectors, by contrast, are easier to run and maintain. They’re relatively less expensive, can be adapted to existing domes like Marie Drake and are integrated into the dome which makes them vastly more versatile for science educators. Updated school planetariums are able to show dramatic events like comets, meteor storms, waves coming from two black holes combining, sky maps at different light wavelengths or what exploding stars look like from other stars. They engage students in a wrap-around experience more rich than the flat-screen internet and are flexible enough to go beyond astronomy for investigating weather patterns, hurricanes, the earth’s interior, earthquakes, and more. Friends of Marie Drake Planetarium are seeking grants to upgrade the facility with contemporary technology. I love that star ball and had a hard time coming to terms with the idea of an upgrade. It helps that the Spitz company, which still produces state of the art planetariums in Pennsylvania, quotes Einstein on its website: “We cannot educate today’s students with yesterday’s technology and expect tomorrow’s success.”

It’s been superb stargazing this winter with lots of clear nights to view the sky’s brightest stars and most dramatic constellations: big Orion, his dog Sirius at his feet, marches above the Douglas mountains. He’s facing Tarus the Bull. The twins Castor and Pollux are behind him and Leo the Lion follows behind them. If the sky is overcast they will still be there behind the clouds and they’ll still be visible at the planetarium. See you in the dark.

*1) During February, planetarium volunteer and adjunct professor of Astronomy Rosemary Walling is teaching two series of classes through Community Schools called Astronomy@Home. Classes are at Thunder Mountain High School. 2) In March the planetarium will be bringing visiting astronomer Dennis Mammana up from California. There will be a $5 fee for that one. Mammana has been to Juneau before and has given night photography lessons here. 3) The May public show will focus on the upcoming total solar eclipse in August.

**Named for its inventor, Philadelphian Armand Spitz. After his newspaper business went bankrupt Spitz sailed to Europe. Far from lights on shore he fell in love with the night sky and threw himself into astronomy. The rest is history. His first models had input from Albert Einstein. He sold more than a million home planetariums which you can still find on eBay.


Marie Drake Planetarium volunteer Clark Branch uses a laser pointer to circle the North Star during a monthly talk on the night sky on Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2017. Photo by Michael Penn

Planetarium fundraises for new projector

November 4th - Juneau Empire

The Friends of the Marie Drake Planetarium, a group of volunteers whose mission is to provide astronomy education and care for the planetarium, is fundraising for a digital projector. The current projector celebrated its 50th birthday in 2017. It’s an analog mechanical optical projection system. While it can show the night sky, its capabilities are limited — it can only show Earth. Friends would like to purchase a Digitalis system, which would increase the capability and versatility of the Marie Drake Planetarium.

In a digital system, the projected image is made up of individual pixels. Because the dome is covered by an array of pixels rather than a fixed set of holes or lenses, anything can be projected: videos, images, other applications and labels,” Friends wrote in a press release.

The system includes a set of astronomy lesson plans for use for kindergarten through 12th-grade students. The system will show the night sky from anywhere in the database, from views of the Earth from Saturn to the Virgo galactic supercluster. The system comes with royalty free music, can be operated by a remote control, and would be portable.

Their fundraising goal is $50,000. As of print time they have raised $5,000. To donate, go to mariedrakeplanetarium.org to use their PayPal button, make a donation at a planetarium show, to a board member, or send a check to Clark Branch, 306 West 8th St., Juneau, AK 99801.

Planetarium fundraises for new projector, seeks volunteers

December 28th, Erin Laughlin for the Juneau Empire
Lighthearted event at planetarium features holiday humor, Santa in a spacesuit

The night after Christmas, Santa was out of Juneau for the evening — way out.

“What do astronauts and Santa have in common?” volunteer Cristina Della Rosa asked the 50 of people inside Marie Drake Planetarium Tuesday night.

“Their special suits!” she answered, getting laughs from the kids and groans from adults in the audience.

The planetarium took a break from serious cosmos discussions for a little holiday-themed humor at a “Christmas in Space” themed event.

Della Rosa, a 57-year-old retiree and longtime planetarium volunteer, led the light-hearted presentation that showed slides of Astronaut Santa and aliens in space. She just so happens to specialize in what she calls astronomy humor, and has even published a book called “Astronomy, Astronaut and Alien Humor.”

One of the funniest moments of the night? Della Rosa asked the crowd whether they thought aliens celebrated Christmas, to which a kid bellowed, “Well, it depends on if they are Jewish or Christian!”

Watching the kids rolling around on the ground, giggling at images of astronaut santas, aliens and astronauts celebrating Christmas was just what she hoped for.

“I was happy about the turnout … and the kids seemed to enjoy it,” she said after the presentation.

The special themed event was a draw for both familiar and new faces. It was 4-year-old Alden Talbot’s first time visiting the planetarium. A preschooler at Montessori Borealis, Talbot just received a toy spaceship for Christmas the night before.

“I want to become an astronaut,” he exclaimed.

Seeing youth get excited about science and space is just one great thing about having a planetarium in Juneau, said longtime Juneau resident Mary Borthwick. Borthwick has been attending presentations at the Marie Drake Planetarium for 49 years, and is an advocate for the institution’s place in the community.

“The planetarium is educational and fun and different than anything else kids can do in town,” she said.

The planetarium hosts free presentations for the community about once a month. The topics are chosen by the volunteers, and vary in subject from celestial navigation to debunking the flat earth theory.

At almost all planetarium shows, the 50-year old earth-centered analog projector is used to display “The Night Sky,” a celestial look of Juneau’s night sky on the dome ceiling displaying how the stars would look if it was clear outside.

Steve Kocsis, a planetarium volunteer of 18 years and University of Alaska Southeast astronomy adjunct, said they are actually trying to upgrade the old projector with a new digital one.

“It works well for showing the night sky but its capabilities are very limited. It can only show (the) view from Earth,” as opposed to more views from Saturn or the moon, for instance, Kocsis said.

A new digital projector will cost approximately $35,000, and the planetarium is currently lightyears away from that goal.

“We have raised somewhere around 10 percent of our goal with online donations through Facebook and our website,” he said.

The planetarium, which is located on Glacier Avenue in the Marie Drake Building between Harborview Elementary School and a playing field, is part of the Juneau School District. The district, however, does not provide staffing or funding for planetarium programming or equipment, according to the Marie Drake Planetarium website.

Della Rosa and Kocsis, both board members of the planetarium, encouraged anyone in the community who is interested to consider volunteering at the planetarium. They could use volunteer help to aid in hands-on programming, children’s programming and fundraising assistance.

For Borthwick, being surrounded by children who still believe in Christmas magic can be similar to the children who wonder about space — yet just a little different.

“With Christmas there is an expectation that something is coming,” she said, “but with space we have to go out there.”

Rachel Wood, 11, helps raise the Spitz projector December 26th.

Gabe Mcguan, 5, looks excitedly at the projection of planets and galaxies on the dome ceiling at the planetarium.

The 1967 Spitz analog projector which is 50 years old. The Marie Drake Planetarium is fundraising for a new digital projector which will cost $35,000 they are at 10 percent of their fundraising goal.

Three photos by Erin Laughlin  For the Juneau Empire)

September 3rd - Neighbors in Juneau Empire

Friends of the Marie Drake Planetarium, the nonprofit that runs the Marie Drake Planetarium, were presented with a generous donation by the Montessori Borealis school.

Lynette Mcnutt and her students presented the check. The money was raised by a bake sale and will be added to our fund to purchase a new digital projector, replacing the 50-year-old analog projector. We are grateful to the teacher and students who devoted time and energy.

The planetarium is part of the school district and has been run by volunteers for 25 years. We offer astronomy education to the public, schools and community groups without charge. The 30-foot fixed dome is the largest in the state. See the stars shine even on the rainiest night. Our schedule is at mariedrakeplanetarium.org.