The Secret of the Heitkamp Planetarium

The Planetarium was built in 1964, out of the leftover blocks from building one of the residence halls at the college. Although it began as nothing more than an afterthought — a practical use for some seemingly useless bricks — it has grown to mean much more for many people.

From the outside, the Planetarium does not look like much. A sign adorns the brick outer wall, proclaiming its identity: “Planetarium.” Its domed roof is the only indication of what is inside this small, unassuming building.

One step through the door of the space is greeted by a musty smell. It is a smell of old books and deteriorating equipment. The smell—at first, slightly repulsive—eventually becomes something unique. The distinct, unmistakable smell of the building. It is the scent of the long-lost knowledge and treasures of the universe, waiting to be discovered. It is the scent of the building that brings us a little closer to the stars.

An ancient projector sits in the center of the room. It is old and minimally functioning. The constellations of the southern hemisphere do not light up; the planets no longer project; and the moon no longer shines. But at the flick of a switch, the constellations of the northern hemisphere are exposed above the seats of the Planetarium. The room melts into the infinite darkness. Anyone in the presence of this star projection is transported to another space: outer space.

We are a lot like the universe. In fact, we are made of the stuff of stars. We are as intricately a part of the universe as the nearest star or solar nebula or planetary mass. But when the stars come alive in the planetarium, we realize how infinitely small we are in a universe so great. How infinitely small we are in our own solar system. How infinitely small even a comet is, in the grand scheme of things. Sometimes, we act like comets and lose our way in the inky blackness of the night. We all have moments where we lose our solar system. We become disconnected from the sun: our energy source, our link to life, our place in the universe.

The farther we travel from the sun, the colder we become. Eventually we are frozen spheres of ice. We race through infinite space, hoping we can find the right solar system. A solar system would mean a home, a planet we could land on, if fate would have us intersect with its orbit at exactly the right time. But we don’t trust fate, we trust the laws of probability in the universe. And probability says the likelihood of us finding a solar home is close to zero.

As we travel through outer space, we realize the universe is expanding at too fast a rate for us to even see another solar system. Everything is moving farther apart, separating and increasing in speed even as we try our best to keep up. We become disheartened. Going on seems impossible; we are expected to find a place in this vast universe, but probability appears to be working against us.

We forget that probability also dictates that, at some rare point, we will cross paths with a solar system. For every chance we will not reach a new solar system, there is a fraction of a chance we will reach one. Eventually, the fractions add up. We reach a new solar system. We begin to thaw. The new star captures us in orbit and life goes on again.

Life moves quickly. The world is increasing in knowledge, data, and drama every second. We’re barely holding on. Sometimes we lose our way. But the laws that govern the universe tell us, eventually, we will find a path to walk on. We might have to “off-road it” for a while, but at the end of the day, we will reach pavement.

We will reach the solar system we are meant to be in. This is what the universe does, it gives us hope for the future and the Planetarium gives us a glimpse into this.

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