LARAMIE — University of Wyoming Planetarium visitors will soon be able to warp digitally into deep outer space.
An $875,000 gift should modernize several aspects of the planetarium, including the seating, dome and projector, said Danny Dale, UW Physics and Astronomy Department head.
The planetarium's current shows are projected using a Spitz star ball, technology introduced in the 1960s. The projector shines hundreds of tiny dots onto the dome to create a map of the nighttime sky, and the star ball's rotation mimics the shifting heavens.
"We don't have much flexibility to develop shows right now because of the limited technology, but with the digital projector it'll be pretty fantastic," Dale said.
The new projector creates three-dimensional images, and the software can travel around them, giving the audience a better understanding of scale and distance, Dale said.
"You see a distant galaxy, and the software just zooms into that galaxy and flies through it," he said. "I mean, it goes by planets and nebula, and those things you absolutely couldn't do at all with the old analog projector."
The Windy Ridge Foundation donated the funds for the renovation, which support technological upgrades; UW students to staff the planetarium; maintenance and future renovations; and will also allow the planetarium to offer shows for K-12 students at a reduced cost, according to a UW media release.
The planetarium will be renamed Harry C. Vaughan UW Planetarium, honoring the Windy Ridge Foundation's founder.
Vaughan was a professor of meteorology in the Iowa State University Department of Geological and Atmospheric Sciences, where he taught courses in meteorology, earth sciences and agronomy, said Dennis Cook, Windy Ridge Foundation director.
Vaughan moved to Laramie after retiring and built a house near Roger Canyon, where he constructed a personal observatory to watch the cosmos and mentor UW students, Cook said.
Windy Ridge was set up when Vaughan died in March 2007 to continue his legacy of teaching astronomy.
"Vaughan was an astronomer and scientist, so he was passionate about trying to encourage young people to get involved in the sciences," Cook said. "The planetarium matched his astronomy goals, and it gives a lot of young people around the state a chance to learn about astronomy and other sciences."
Dale said the UW Planetarium receives about 3,000 visitors annually.
The gift will be paid in installments over the next five years. The first round of funds came in 2012.
About $575,000 is devoted to upgrading the planetarium. In addition to the projector, seating and dome, the planetarium's lobby will be remodeled, Dale said.
The new dome will be outfitted specially for the digital projector, he said, removing seams between the dome's panels.
"In the old days, when you had just a projector and the whole dome was dark and you're just projecting a couple of lights here and there on the dome, it didn't matter that there were seams showing," he said. "But nowadays, when you have these digital projectors, you're basically illuminating the whole dome. It's no longer just black everywhere. So we're going to replace the dome because the seams are going to be noticeable."
The remaining $300,000 will establish an "Excellence Fund" to pay UW students who give shows in the planetarium, Dale said.
"We train undergraduates to give these (Friday evening) shows," Dale said. "It'll be a little bit more involved when we have the digital planetarium, because there's a lot more cool software and capabilities."
Aside from zooming into space, the new technology creates three-dimensional visualizations.
The projector, for example, can display a three-dimensional image of planet Earth on the dome, showing locations of all recent earthquakes or hundreds of satellites in orbit.
Another feature allows the projector to show full movies on the dome.
"One demonstration we gave to some people here at UW . was 'Black Holes,'" Dale said. "This movie was kind of like edutainment. You could zoom, you could fly around the black hole, and you could go down in the black hole. Showing those 3D-type movies is something you really couldn't do before."
Construction is planned for June through August, with the grand opening slated for the fall.
"There are three planetariums in the state," Dale said. "One's in Gillette and one's in Casper. So, we're really the only planetarium in southern Wyoming, and we're really happy to make it a better facility, because we do service a lot of school kids from around the state."