Blast off into outer space — without ever leaving the Eastside

February 15, 2011

By Laura Geggel

A viewing audience reclines in theater seats to view the Milky Way galaxy projected on the Willard Geer Planetarium dome at Bellevue College. By Greg Farrar

Bellevue College offers excursions into the cosmos from the comfort of a planetarium seat

There are a thousand ways Armageddon could destroy life on earth, and all without the help of aliens.

During its 220-million-year rotation around the Milky Way, our sun could pass through a giant dust cloud, blocking the sun’s rays to earth and triggering an ice age that could last thousands of years. Or, a nearby star could die in a supernova explosion. Its energy could burn a hole in the ozone layer, exposing us to the sun’s radiation — rays that would fry everything in their path.

Both of these and more are covered in “Violent Universe, Catastrophes of the Cosmo,” narrated by Patrick Stewart — a movie that literally surrounds the viewer at Bellevue College’s Willard Geer Planetarium.

The college has much to brag about when it comes to its planetarium. Former physics instructor Willard Geer, who helped invent the color TV, provided the impetus for starting the planetarium during his years at the school, from 1968-75.

“He was the college’s first physics instructor, and as he was reaching retirement time he thought it would be a great thing for the college and the community,” Astronomy Director Art Goss said.

The Willard Geer Planetarium is the only planetarium on the Eastside, and instructors invite students and the public to visit the 30-foot dome that seats 60 people.

The planetarium plunges students into 3-D trips through the universe, taking them on roller coaster rides through a black hole, or into the frozen rings of Saturn. Those prone to motion sickness can simply close their eyes, though most of their neighbors will likely have their eyes wide open, craning their necks toward the curved ceiling as they pass by gleaning stars and giant gas planets.

The planetarium turns astronomy into something tangible, at least during its shows.

“I remember back in the day when I was in school, we didn’t have anything this exciting,” College President Jean Floten said. “I experienced the world of stars through a textbook and it wasn’t half as exciting as getting my Girl Scout badge in constellations, when I went outside and actually looked at the stars.”

Kelsey Andrews, a 21-year-old student from Issaquah, took Astronomy 101 to fulfill her science credit, something she had to go out of her way to earn alongside her major in her interior design.

“I’ve always been interested in stars and understanding the way they work, which I never had until now,” she said.

Andrews initially planned to take astronomy through an online course, but changed her mind when she learned the college had a planetarium because “I’m very visual,” she said.

The planetarium has helped her understand how Earth rotates around the sun and how its wobbly tilt gives the planet its seasons. Using the planetarium’s dome, Goss showed his students how high the sun travels into the sky during summer and how low it moves in winter. Textbooks aren’t able to describe it as well as seeing does, Andrews said.

Issaquah Running Start student Tyler Heathman, 17, said the planetarium’s show helped him grasp the concept of solar flares — hiccups from the sun that can disrupt radio communications.

So many students take astronomy classes at the college that it has two full-time instructors and two course levels: introductory and advanced astronomy. Elementary through high school students visit the planetarium for field trips and Boy and Girl Scouts can earn a badge if they see a show.

The college also has an observatory, but it is not open to the public. Given Seattle’s cloudy weather and light pollution, even students don’t get to use it that much.

“The observatory is real great here, but I can’t brag on it too much because the weather is so undependable,” Goss said.

Interstellar clouds of hydrogen gas are stellar nurseries as a planetarium movie imagines how the process develops over eons of time. By Greg Farrar

3, 2, 1, blast off

When the planetarium was dedicated in 1976, it had the most basic of projectors — a large, hollow ball with thousands of holes in it marking the stars and planets. Instructors would shine a light into the ball and — presto — students would see the universe shining on the planetarium’s ceiling.

“We could tilt it, but other than that it couldn’t do much,” Goss said.

In 2005, the college upgraded to a digital projector and in 2009 received $200,000 in private donations to upgrade to Digistar 3 software and hardware, made by Evan & Sutherland.

Now, the system can show color, zoom people millions of years into the future — when the Big Dipper no longer looks like a dipper — and thousands of years into the past, giving onlookers a glimpse of the sky when the Egyptians built their great pyramids.

Instructors can broadcast 3-D images from NASA. They can show two galaxies colliding in a few seconds — though in reality it takes millions of years. The Digistar 3 software can show any location within 900 light-years of the sun.

“If I have ever gone in my life from a planetarium to a regular room, it would be torture,” Goss said. “It’s hard to get the concepts across and see how it all works. It’s huge as a teaching tool.”

In planetarium presentations, students can learn the difference between a comet — a giant, dirty snowball hurtling through space that forms a tail as it melts near the sun — and asteroids — pieces of rock and metal speeding through space.

They can also learn about elements like iron, a major component of both stars and people.

“When they say we are all made from stars, we are,” planetarium volunteer presenter Lisa Hill said, as she showed Orion and his two dogs, Sirius and Canis Minor.

After the show, visitors can participate in a show-and-tell of space rocks. The college has a black, iron meteor — surprisingly heavier than it looks — from Arizona. There is also a small, reddish meteor from outer space that survived impact on Earth, and an iron meteor sliced and etched with acid to show its crystals — a specimen worthy of any Andrew Carnegie museum.

The public can see everything — the violent universe show, the zodiac and the meteors — at the college. Hill is leading several free, public shows at the planetarium these next few weeks.

“If they leave excited about it, then that’s the absolute best result,” Goss said. “I can’t think of anything more cool and exciting than trying to understand how the universe works overall.”

If you go

Bellevue College will air ‘Violent Universe, Catastrophes of the Cosmo,’ narrated by Patrick Stewart, of ‘Star Trek,’ in six free, 45-minute shows at its planetarium. See the shows at 6:30, 7:30 or 8:30 p.m. March 4. Download the limited tickets from Brown Paper Tickets. Call 564-3055 for more information.

Schedule a field trip or private show. Invite 60 of your closest friends to a private showing at the Bellevue College’s Willard Geer Planetarium. Call 564-5282 at least three weeks in advance to schedule a show. School groups can see solar system presentations from 10:30-11:15 a.m. Monday-Friday for $150. The general public can rent the planetarium in the evening for $250.

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