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UCLA Planetarium shoots for the stars with rejuvenated programming

A telescope on the roof of the Math Sciences Building is pictured. After restarting in-person shows in 2022 following a pause during the COVID-19 pandemic, graduate volunteers are planning to bring a variety of programs to the planetarium this upcoming year. (Daily Bruin file photo)

By Lyah Fitzpatrick

Sept. 21, 2023 11:39 p.m.

Correction: The original version of this article’s feature photo caption incorrectly stated that the photo was of the UCLA Planetarium. In fact, the photo is of a telescope on the roof of the Math Sciences Building.

This post was updated Sept. 24 at 10:02 p.m.

The UCLA Planetarium is returning from a summer hiatus with full capacity, weekly shows and fresh collaborations.

The format will remain relatively the same as the past – each show will last around an hour, consisting of an introductory slideshow presentation and a tour of the night sky using the planetarium projector and dome, said Claire Williams, a coordinator for the planetarium and an astronomy and astrophysics doctoral student. However, the planetarium will also offer new kinds of programming that go beyond the scope of astronomy such as a poetry read, Williams said. The shows will continue to be free and designed for the public, she added.

Williams said the planetarium is entirely operated by graduate student volunteers. William Misener, a planetary science doctoral student, said he chooses to volunteer in order to share his interests in astronomy and astrophysics with others.

(Courtesy of William Misener)
William Misener, a planetary science doctoral student, presents a scientific demonstration during the annual Exploring Your Universe event. Misener, who hosted a planetarium show in May, said he hopes the shows get more people interested in astronomy. (Courtesy of William Misener)

Dakotah Tyler, an astronomy and astrophysics doctoral student, has volunteered with the planetarium since his first year as a UCLA graduate student.

“I just love to have that back and forth and sort of feed off of the interest and the curiosity that other people also have about the universe,” Taylor said.

Presentations at the planetarium span a variety of topics. Misener said he has presented on Native American constellations and also led an in-person presentation in May about planetary interiors. Tyler, who presented in May as well, discussed exoplanets – which are planets beyond our solar system, according to NASA.

Although the planetarium is currently operating fully in person, for portions of 2020 and 2021 during the COVID-19 pandemic it live-streamed its shows on Youtube, Williams said. Misener said he liked how the online format allowed the planetarium to reach a wider audience.

However, Tyler, who is also a planetarium coordinator, said he felt that the Zoom shows reduced interpersonal connection and weakened the immersive effect that a dome and projector would provide.

“It’s the difference between being at a concert or watching a concert on your TV,” Tyler said. “It’s different to be immersed in that experience and have the emotions going and being able to kind of have that personal touch with the presenter, the audience – other people.”

Although the planetarium returned to in-person shows in early 2022, Williams said the program still faces challenges such as a lack of audience space, shortage of volunteers and dated equipment. She said there has been discussion of upgrading the entire facility but added that these plans still require development.

The planetarium’s programming will also undergo updates during the upcoming year, Williams said. For example, the planetarium hopes to hold a poetry show with a local poet who writes about various astronomical objects, and it will also continue hosting private events for younger students in the Los Angeles area, she added.

(Courtesy of Claire Williams)
Claire Williams, a planetarium coordinator, is pictured. Williams, who is also a doctoral student in astronomy and astrophysics, said she looks forward to continuing shows after a summer hiatus. (Courtesy of Claire Williams)

Williams said the UCLA Planetarium plans on hosting its weekly shows Wednesdays throughout the school year, adding that she is excited to get back.

Tyler said visitors can often also use the telescopes themselves to look at the sky after the shows and that he believes the planetarium is an experience everyone should take advantage of.

“Hopefully, by doing these presentations, people kind of appreciate that space is really interesting,” Misener said. “There’s a lot of cool stuff going on in astronomy.”

The planetarium is also particularly unique in LA, which has significant light pollution, Williams added. She said the dome projector displays an image of the night sky without the normal obstruction of pollution seen outdoors.

Williams said the planetarium is key for the astronomy department’s outreach, allowing it to connect with students from all fields of study.

The planetarium also provides one of the best avenues to share scientific knowledge with the general public, Tyler said.

“In large, all of the scientific advancements that we make as a society and as a species is really only fully taken advantage of when everybody understands it,” Tyler said. “It doesn’t really do any good for us to go into a basement and run a bunch of code and learn a bunch of things and be the only ones who are able to understand it.”

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Lyah Fitzpatrick
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