Campus planetarium is losing its star power

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STARRING ATTRACTION— Dr. Jeff Veal and other science faculty say it is time to replace SWC’s aging planetarium. Once a South County marvel, the 45-year-old device is nearing obsolescence, according to Veal.
Photos by Marshall Murphy

Since man’s earliest depiction of the sky in Egypt around 1,500 BC, our need to try and map the incomprehensible vastness that is space has only grown with each technological advancement. That hunger for answers reached Southwestern College nearly 45 years ago when one of only three planetariums in San Diego County was built on campus. It seems, however, to be a well-kept secret.

“I didn’t know we had a planetarium,” said Amy Anthenill, a marine biology major. “Where is it? On campus?”

With only 21 declared astronomy majors out of about 17,000 students, SWC’s planetarium seems lost in a constellation of other priorities.

Located in building 382, the planetarium is similar in design to projection systems developed by German optical manufacture Zeiss in the 1930s. Using a concave metal sphere system with intricate lenses that beam light through strategically-placed holes representing our neighboring stars, the planetarium is able to display some of the intricacies of space on its curvaceous ceiling. Astronomy Professor Dr. Jeffrey Veal said the planetarium brings the galaxy to Chula Vista.

“People think the planetarium is actually the building,” he said. “In fact, it is the machine itself that makes the planetarium. It displays standard stuff. The sun, planets, motions of the stars and coordinate systems.”

Veal said the planetarium has not received an upgrade since the 1960s, even though galactic knowledge has grown immeasurably. Within the last 30 years the human race has mapped the Big Bang’s cosmic microwave background radiation, pierced interstellar space with Voyager I and II, discovered dark matter, found black holes in the center of our galaxy, expelled Pluto as a planet and launched the Kepler satellite, which has identified nearly 900 planets. Technology used in the more up-to-date planetariums has gone digital with the use of thin fiber optics and sophisticated computing systems that can take a perspective inside the actual expansion of the universe.

While astronomers look toward the future, SWC’s planetarium looks retro.

“It looks like you went to the past,” said Janet Mazzarella, dean of the School of Math, Science and Engineering. “It hardly makes the department comfortable presenting the planetarium to the community”

Veal said the planetarium gets used “less than a handful of times” each year.

Despite its antiquity, Veal continues to use the planetarium in his courses as a tool to help students understand our place in the universe.

“It’s better than nothing,” he said.

A few years ago Professor of Astronomy Grant Miller attempted to draw attention to our cosmic resource by inviting the community onto campus for a “Planetarium Show.” Miller’s excellent project, unfortunately, drew little community interest, said Veal.

Astronomy, though it holds the secrets of mankind’s future, did not make the list of 100 best jobs, according to a 2013 U.S. News and World Report survey. It was only was only 44 years ago that humans turned the moon into a destination, igniting the imaginations of millions and turning the eyes of Americans toward the heavens. 

Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock should not give up hope. Veal said the planetarium could once again become popular with the community with a little P.R. SWC administrators are supportive, he said.

Using Proposition R funds, SWC will upgrade the math, science and engineering facilities, which includes a new planetarium. Mazzarella said the campus needs to be visionary.

“We need a plan for the future, something that will last for the next 50 years.”

Administrators and faculty have said they are hopeful a more visible location will help market the new planetarium. Veal said he is excited about the new facility because he wants the planetarium to serve more students. Mazzarella said she also wants to hear students getting interested in the planetarium.  Philosophical biotech professor Dr. Nouna Bahkiet joined the chorus.

“Students need to know there’s more to us than meets the naked eye,” she said. “Understanding space allows students to realize the significance of their existence. It can go inwards or outwards.”

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