Giant leap in quality at school planetarium

Astronomy: Catonsville college gets new equipment.

October 26, 2001|By Gerard Shields | Gerard Shields,SUN STAFF

In Fred Hickok's classroom, a day passes in 20 seconds, a year in 80 seconds.

As associate professor of astronomy at the Catonsville campus of the Community College of Baltimore County, Hickok is also the caretaker of the school's Benjamin Banneker Planetarium, which has a new $312,000 projection system allowing students to study the cosmos through dozens of computer-generated programs that will combine music with celestial ceiling maps.

The planetarium is used as a classroom for college students studying astronomy and also serves as a field trip attraction for students from area elementary, middle and high schools. Last year, an estimated 3,000 people visited the site.

The previous planetarium projector was 35 years old and lacked the video capabilities that the new system - one of six in the nation - provides, Hickok said.

For example, Hickok will be able to project swirling black holes onto the ceiling, allowing students to see stars passing through them.

"Now when I walk outside, I can recognize the constellations and say, `That's Mars,'" said Kristi Sewell, a first-year astronomy student. "You're not only looking in a book, you can see it in the sky."

The projector has been in use for two months. The college recently held a demonstration, with the gray-haired Hickok operating a blinking control panel that resembles a sound mixing board for a rock concert.

He makes the projector slowly rise from its black floor casing to the music from 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Initially looking like a round, black ball, the projector climbs above the casing and resembles a satellite or a robot from Star Wars. The lights in the round room dim, and 2,300 stars appear on the ceiling, making it look like a clear night sky. Hickok uses a red laser to point out planets and constellations.

"I really like learning about what the constellations look like," said Anna Lea Heacock, a third-grader from Jones Elementary School in Severna Park who attended the demonstration. "I didn't know anything about that."

Another push of a button and Hickok makes the Earth's axis appear on the ceiling. The room feels as if it's spinning as Hickok rotates the sun to show a full day passing. Under the previous system, it took three minutes for a day to pass; now it takes 20 seconds.

Reviews from the event were positive. Jacob Lingan, a fifth-grader at Hillcrest Elementary School in Catonsville, said he liked the new and improved system at the planetarium.

"This time it had music, and the screen moves," he said.

Adults attending the recent unveiling also walked away impressed.

"It was wild to be able to see the stars," said Baltimore County Council Chairman Stephen G. Samuel Moxley, a Catonsville Democrat. "You always hear people talking about the astrological figures, but to see them is wild."

The system, made by Spitz Inc. of Chadds Ford, Pa., took nine months to build and three weeks to install. The unit's new video and audio components probably won't be installed until January, bringing the full cost of the project closer to $400,000, school officials said.

Administrators say the expense is justified.

"It gives us a state-of-the-art instrument to help promote coordination between BCCC and Baltimore-area schools," said school President Andrew C. Jones.

"If we can pique the interest of one or two students a year into the sciences," Moxley said of the new projector, "it has more than paid for itself."

Planetarium shows are free to schools and groups such as senior citizens or civic associations. The eight public show times can be booked by calling 410-455-4560.

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