The Marie Drake Planetarium

Where the stars always shine in Juneau, AK

Newspaper Articles - 2020


Publication of pacific planetarium association
President’s Message

Karl Von Ahnen PPA President, [email protected]

Planetarium Visit

Exterior of the Marie Drake Planetarium

A True Community Planetarium

For this quarter's president's message I made a virtual visit to Juneau Alaska and the Marie Drake Planetarium. I connected by zoom with the 4 of the 5 volunteer board members that operate the planetarium and do all of the presentations. They have also succeeded in some major fund raising, allowing for a significant planetarium upgrade. What a wonderful, dedicated, enthusiastic group of people! The planetarium is run entirely by volunteers and all shows are free to everyone.

This was the first planetarium in Alaska. It opened in 1967 with a Spitz A3P in a 30 foot dome, at the Marie Drake Junior High school. The school district has gone through changes since then, but still owns the building in which the planetarium is located.

The planetarium serves many purposes, photo by Rosemary Walling

In 1975 the planetarium stopped being used and was mothballed and used as a storage room. Then in 1990 a group of volunteers made a deal with the school district. They cleaned out the room and started giving shows.

They promised the school district that they would offer one free public show per month, and with rare exception, have held to that promise all these many years. In exchange the district maintains the building, pays the electric bill and takes care of

insurance, etc.

Through the years a very wide variety of live show topics have been presented for public and school groups. Here are just a few that I noticed on their very informative website: Miss Leavitt's Stars Unlock the Universe, Art of the Aurora, the Great American Eclipse, 100 years of General Relativity, Astronaut Humor, The Moon: Facts and Follies, Gravitational Waves, Skywatching and Ancient Calendars, Degenerate Stars, Stephen Hawking's Science, Eclipse Humor, Astrophotography, Exploring Mars, Kid's Day at the Planetarium. The volunteer presenters have been surprised at the public's interest and craving for programs on many rather technical astronomy topics. They also have presented many public shows with kid's interests in mind, and many programs specifically for school groups.

Board members Stephen Kocsis, and Cristina Della Rosa at the console. Photo by Juneau Empire
In 2011 the "Friends of the Marie Drake Planetarium" non-profit organization was formed with 5 board members. The board's goal was to raise money to purchase a digital projector to "expand and improve our astronomy education programming". These five members of the board besides doing the fund raising, run the equipment and present all the shows. The money raising was slow going at first, but by 2019 they had attained grants from a number of sources in the $10K to $25K range along with a lot of smaller donations, and were able to purchase a Digitalis Lambda digital projector (price range about $100K). The new system was set up; they were trained and ready to go in early 2020. They managed to present four public shows, before the Corona Virus struck and they had to shut down. The big plans for an open house for donors and formal grand reopening have had to be put on hold.

The planetarium is now poised to reopen with a bang once the restrictions are lifted and things can return to normal - it's just a waiting game for now. In the mean time, they would love to engage in some on-line activities with their would-be patrons, but don't know

how to proceed. If anyone has advice or suggestions, they

would love to hear from you.

The newly upgraded planetarium in action.

Photo by Juneau Empire

The operation of this planetarium is really exceptional: all volunteer and all programs are free! It is obvious that the planetarium enjoys a lot of support from the community. One of the reasons I chose Juneau Planetarium to visit virtually, was that it seemed too out of the way for me to actually go there. 

Planetarium volunteers and supporters at the 2007 4th of July Parade. 

Now I very much hope to have the opportunity to visit in person and meet this amazing group of planetarians and experience this wonderful community planetarium fist-hand.

Board members (L-R) Stephen Kocsis - Secretary, Cristina Dell Rosa - President, Clark Branch - Treasurer, David Hanson (with dinner) and Rosemary Walling. Photo by Rosemary Walling