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UCLA Planetarium hosts virtual show, plans for in-person relaunch

Planetarium show staff Lizvette Villafaña, Briley Lewis and Luke Finnerty stand inside the UCLA Planetarium. Finnerty hosted the first virtual show since March on Wednesday on the topic of hot Jupiters. (Courtesy of Devon Williams)

By Keya Jonnalagadda

Oct. 18, 2021 12:46 a.m.

Graduate student volunteers at the UCLA Planetarium hope for a swift return to in-person shows as they kick off the school year with their first virtual show since March.

The planetarium hosted the first show of the school year Wednesday virtually on the topic of hot Jupiters – Jupiter-sized exoplanets that are located very close to their stars and have high surface temperatures.

Exoplanets are planets located outside of the solar system, according to NASA. Astronomers have discovered thousands of exoplanets, and improving telescope technology is helping astronomers identify more, according to NASA.

“Astronomers are starting to move from just detecting exoplanets to learning about the details of individual exoplanets and their atmospheres,” said Luke Finnerty, an astronomy graduate student and volunteer.

The show included a simulation of the Los Angeles night sky and a discussion of recently discovered phenomena, such as iron rain, which occurs when atmospheric iron on an exoplanet condenses and falls like rain.

Finnerty’s only experience giving planetarium shows has been virtual, though he expressed his interest in hosting an in-person show in the unique ambiance of the planetarium.

Show coordinators and astronomy doctoral students Briley Lewis and Lizvette Villafaña have also been looking forward to returning to in-person shows. They said the volunteers at the planetarium faced difficulties adapting to the COVID-19 pandemic and worked hard to support a virtual show format.

“We’ve had a very good routine for many years, and that was suddenly destroyed with a pandemic,” Lewis said. “We had to come up with a new plan, and we at the planetarium had never hosted virtual shows before, so that was a lot of work to get it functioning.”

Given the uncertainties of the pandemic, the planetarium coordinators had decided to take an early break in March and return to weekly showings this fall, Lewis added.

Show coordinators and UCLA Planetarium fans are looking forward to the first in-person show of the year, which is planned for Dec. 1. However, the students running the show say they will continue to adapt their plans based on UCLA’s COVID-19 protocols, including requiring attendees to be fully vaccinated.

The UCLA Planetarium will be hosting two upcoming shows on the James Webb Space Telescope launch, Lewis said. One show will be virtual in October, and the other show will tentatively be in person in December with giveaways to commemorate the event.

While coordinators hope to return to regular in-person shows soon, they said the silver lining with giving virtual shows has been an increase in viewership and accessibility.

“A cool part of going virtual is that we can get a bigger audience, … and that is different for the planetarium that we now have an online presence,” Villafaña said. “There was one show that got thousands of viewers.”

Villafaña and Lewis also said that during the pandemic, the planetarium was able to offer a show in Spanish, something they hope to continue doing with more languages to make their programs more inclusive

Gina Estrada-Ducoing, a viewer from Orange County, said she and her family have enjoyed watching the virtual shows throughout the pandemic. Although traveling to the planetarium would be difficult because of traffic, she said she would love to attend an in-person show.

“I know it’s something that my youngest, especially, since he’s the big space fan in our family, would love – to actually go to a planetarium and see it,” Estrada-Ducoing said.

Finnerty said he shares similar thoughts about the value of in-person shows.

“I think there is something in the real show that you just can’t replicate virtually, even though you can reach a wider audience,” Finnerty said.

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