Wednesday, Aug. 22, 2007

Opening eyes to planets, and possibilities beyond

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Instead of heading to the Air and Space Museum on the National Mall, locals in search of the stars can take a trip to the nearby planetarium at the Montgomery College Takoma Park⁄Silver Spring campus.

‘‘We do live shows, not canned shows, and they can ask real questions,” said planetarium coordinator Dr. Harold Alden Williams. ‘‘It can be tailored to the curricular goals of whatever the group is.”

Pacing around the 24-foot planetarium, Williams excitedly pointed to the various telescope models hanging around the room, explained the photographs of planets and diagrams that cover its walls, and on the curved roof of the planetarium showed what stars and planets Takoma Park residents could see in the 1950s. He occasionally paused to share some tidbits of information, from a story about Christopher Columbus’ Portuguese princess-wife to the more relevant history of the planetarium itself.

‘‘It was built in 1960 — shortly after Sputnik goes up in 1957,” said Williams, adding that of the many planetariums built during this time period, most were built in community colleges. ‘‘It was a direct response to that part of the Cold War.”

Williams assumed the planetarium duties when he came to Montgomery College 18 years ago and has put his enthusiasm for teaching and astronomy toward turning the facility — one of only three in Montgomery County — into a community resource ever since.

‘‘When I took over, I decided I needed to develop programs and hold public shows to bring in the community,” said Williams, who is a full-time staff and adjunct faculty member of Montgomery College. ‘‘My job is to put the community in community college.”

Dr. Dehlly Porras, who oversees the planetarium as dean of Natural and Applied Sciences, Business, Management and Information Sciences, said the college is doing its part to support Williams in his outreach efforts.

‘‘[The planetarium] has been a wonderful venue for our college to be in touch with the community,” said Porras, who has been a dean at Montgomery College for four years. ‘‘We want more classes to come and visit us and more schools, institutions, and centers to invite us to come and talk about astronomy.”

Williams said that the planetarium seats 42 people and sees 3,000 or 4,000 visitors a year and up to 300 a week. Its guests include college students enrolled in Astronomy 101, various community groups who come to hear Williams’ lectures on subjects as diverse as extraterrestrial life and Islamic astronomy, and local residents who attend the monthly music laser light or public planetarium shows.

School groups also comprise a large percentage of the planetarium’s visitors. Dorian Janney, who is head of the science department at Parkland Magnet Middle School for Aerospace Technology, brings a group of 40 sixth-graders to the planetarium every spring to supplement the curriculum of their astronomy elective.

‘‘It is vital to have planetariums, particularly ones that are open to the public,” said Janney, who added that the students always love the field trip. ‘‘This one is so much more accessible, and not just that it is easy to get to, but also that you have someone right there in Dr. Williams that you can ask questions of.”

All groups are required to reserve in advance but can use the facilities for free.

Williams is also considering going digital as a way of maintaining interest and attendance levels. Presently the planetarium uses an opto-mechanical machine and maintenance costs about $3,000 a month. Converting the planetarium’s system could cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, according to Williams, but Porras said she would support the modernization of the planetarium.

‘‘I support any professional development for my faculty, but even more when I know it is going to benefit the community,” she said.

See a lunar eclipse

The Montgomery College planetarium invites stargazers to a viewing of the lunar eclipse at exactly 4:51 a.m. until sunrise Tuesday. The lunar eclipse will be viewed outside the planetarium as weather permits, or inside the planetarium via a Web camera on the Internet in the case of inclement weather. The planetarium is located at 7651 Fenton St. on the Takoma Park⁄Silver Spring campus. Visit http:⁄⁄⁄Departments⁄planet⁄planet⁄LunarEclipse8-28-2007.html for more information, or e-mail planetarium coordinator and astrophysicist Harold Williams at