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Intellect

BYU astronomy department unveils new planetarium

High-tech projector and new acoustics make it one-of-a-kind

With a specialized 3-D projector and state-of-the-art acoustics, the completely rebuilt Brigham Young University planetarium was unveiled by physics and astronomy department officials in March.

Designed not only for public demonstrations but also specifically as a teaching facility, the planetarium features special measures taken to reduce echoes inherent in a dome that traditionally make lecturing difficult. It also seats 119, up from the original 40, and can project all the stars visible to the naked eye, in addition to others that require binoculars to see outside.

"It is attractively, beautifully designed, but not at the expense of functionality," said Tom Balonek, a professor of physics and astronomy at Colgate University who has toured the facility. "It's extremely carefully designed as a lecture room and for astronomy instruction."

The projector is so precise it allows lecturers to reproduce the positions of stars and planets as seen from any location on Earth at any epoch in time, explained J. Ward Moody, professor of physics and astronomy. "We can demonstrate what the night sky would have looked like from the Holy Land on the night Christ was born."

Watching the movement of planets and stars can make learning much more effective, Moody added.

"Part of any research effort is to understand what your models are telling you, and those models are sometimes hard to visualize on a flat sheet of paper," he said. ""This is a beautiful theater constructed in such a way to optimize the sound and visual effect of looking at the sky while we are teaching."

Moody foresees a time when the visualization technology can be used to further work in other disciplines, such as projecting the inside of an atom.

"Here we have a room, with proper support, where you can put together a 3-D model of what you're trying to research," he said. "It can impact a variety of fields."

The astronomers who lecture comfortably in the planetarium owe that functionality to their physics department colleagues who are experts in acoustics. Timothy Leishman, assistant professor of physics, described the challenges of merging two things that don't usually go well together – a dome and sound.

"Any time you have a domed structure, you get focusing of sound and a whispering gallery effect—sound creeps along the dome and ends up on the other side, concentrating the sound in the middle," he said. "We used a new type of treatment on the dome—it looks like plaster, but it has very fine pores. A good portion of the sound works itself into pores and gets absorbed by insulation. It's also a very nice projection surface."

Leishman said the remodeled BYU planetarium is the only one he is aware of with this acoustic treatment.

The BYU Astronomical Society will begin giving public shows each Friday night beginning April 1. The cost will be $2 a person. During Astronomy Week, March 21-25, there will be free public shows. For a complete schedule visit: http://planetarium.byu.edu.

Writer: Michael Smart

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