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Still Stellar

IUP Planetarium Has Put Stars in Eyes for 50 Years

Ken Coles has directed the IUP planetarium for the last 13 of its 50 years on campus. With him are students Joey Marold, left, and Adam Romani. Photo by Keith Boyer

The view from Ken Coles’s workplace is out of this world.

As Coles fires up the Spitz A3P projector and dims the lights in Weyandt Hall’s planetarium, some 2,000 celestial bodies begin to twinkle in the dome above. So realistic is their appearance that a few early visitors to the facility were convinced the roof had been opened to reveal the actual night sky.

Students and fans of astronomy have flocked to this, pardon the pun, stellar campus attraction for 50 years. Much like a former Hollywood starlet of a similar age, the planetarium long ago lost its youthful blush but can still bedazzle.

“When I was hired at IUP, I was told I would get to run the planetarium,” said Coles, a member of the geoscience faculty since 2004. “I thought, my goodness, what a teaching tool. How could you not use it as much as possible? It’s old—it has limitations—but it’s still as useful for teaching as a modern facility.”

The planetarium opened several months after Weyandt Hall was dedicated on October 15, 1966. Fred Park, then a first-year chemistry faculty member, recalls the buzz that accompanied the new emphasis on science at IUP.

“This was a time of enormous change on campus,” said Park, who segued into geoscience long before he retired in 1999. “At that time, as a response to the space race, there was finally money to hire science faculty. We went from having a science coordinator to having a dean. Within a year, we had a geoscience department. And Weyandt Hall was completed. It was a beautiful new building, and the planetarium to me was just a wonderful facility.” 

archive photos of Bob Woodard, Connie Sutton, Fred Park, and Ron Freda

From top left: Bob Woodard, Connie Sutton. From bottom left: Fred Park, Ron Freda. Photos courtesy of IUP Geoscience Department

The 1,000-pound Spitz projector—Coles calls it “a phenomenal piece of technology”—arrived not long after Weyandt opened its doors. The planetarium began operations the following semester under the direction of physics professor Robert Woodard, who would go on to become the first chair of the Geoscience Department.

Woodard invited the public to a grand unveiling on February 6, 1967. The inaugural show drew rave reviews.

“The planetarium instrument can reflect clearly images of approximately 2,000 stars,” noted an Indiana Evening Gazette account of the premiere event. “A xenon arc light source reproduces a very fine and true ‘sky’ which is sharp and bright. Also depicted in the overhead dome by the use of synchronized motors are the five planets visible to the naked eye in the actual sky—Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn—as well as the moon and their natural movement over the course of a full day.”

Subsequent programs attracted throngs to Weyandt. Professor emerita Connie Evans Sutton ’67, M’68, who assisted Woodard in the planetarium as a student and later served 35 years as its director before retiring in 2003, welcomed between 4,000 and 5,000 visitors to the facility in its opening year.

“We had Girl Scout and Boy Scout troops, groups like the Lions Club and the Rotary Club, people from the senior citizen centers, school kids, and church groups,” Sutton said. “So many people in the area had never been to a planetarium before, and they were amazed at how real it looked. In fact, there were some people who thought I had opened the dome and was showing the actual sky.”

Program topics through the years have included lunar eclipses; the Star of Bethlehem, in which the Spitz A3P projected on the dome what the Magi would have seen in the night sky more than 2,000 years ago; various comets, most notably Halley and Kohoutek, that were visible as they made close approaches to Earth; a tongue-in-cheek look at Santa Claus and how he might navigate by the stars while delivering Christmas gifts; and, most recently, a preview of the total solar eclipse that will darken portions of the United States on August 21.

Though admittedly in its dotage, the planetarium remains an asset to both the university and the community beyond. Like that aging starlet, it still possesses the power to captivate.

“This is really what you need to see how the stars move around in the sky, how the planets move relative to the stars—it does everything that is necessary and does it very well,” said Ron Freda, who joined the Geoscience Department in 1973 and occasionally ran the planetarium before retiring this year as a member of the physics faculty. “It’s a venerable old machine. It does show its age, but it still does the job.”

But for how much longer? Replacement parts for the Spitz A3P are difficult to locate, and technicians familiar enough with the projector to make repairs are fast becoming a relic of a bygone era, like service station attendants who actually pump gas. So questions hang in the air the way stars seemingly hang in the heavens.

Will the planetarium that just marked 50 years be moved to the new science building projected for completion in 2021? Will a new one be constructed? Or will the campus, for the first time since Woodard invited the public to attend that inaugural show in 1967, be left without an instrument that simulates the sky?

Deanne Snavely, dean of the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics, believes the future of the facility is as bright as Sirius, the Dog Star.

“We have a new planetarium in the feasibility study that was done for the new science building, so we anticipate that we will have a new planetarium,” she said. “It has been an important part of our educational program and our outreach program for all of those years, so our plan is to have a new one.”

Until that plan comes to fruition, Ken Coles will continue to relish one of the perks of his job as director of the existing planetarium. He has only to fire up the Spitz and dim the lights to savor a view that’s out of this world.

Total Eclipse of the Heart(land)

view of a total eclipse, with the moon covering the sun

The moon slid in front of the sun during an eclipse visible in Baja California in 1991. Photo by Steve Albers, Dennis Dicicco, Gary Emerson

IUP’s Geoscience Department capped the planetarium’s 50th year with a program devoted to a spectacular phenomenon some have called the celestial event of the century.

The first total solar eclipse visible in the continental United States in 38 years will occur August 21, as the shadow of the moon sweeps across the country from Oregon to South Carolina, touching 14 states in all. Those in the narrow path of totality can expect daylight to turn to deep twilight for as long as two minutes, 40 seconds, while temperatures fall and birds and other animals go quiet.

Other portions of the nation will see fewer of the sun’s rays blocked. The IUP campus can expect to experience approximately 80 percent of the full effect at about 1:30 p.m., when the eclipse is most visible in western Pennsylvania.

More information is available at the NASA website.

Illustration of the path of the August 2017 total eclipse across the United States

Parts of the United States that fall under the dark path will experience a total eclipse on August 21. For the rest of the country, the fraction of the sun’s area covered by the moon will vary. Image: NASA Scientific Visualization Studio. Click the image to enlarge. full-size.