Honors students reach for the stars

A terrific resource on Loras’ campus is the Heitkamp Planetarium. In fact, it is the only functional planetarium within a hundred mile radius.

It was built in 1964 almost as an afterthought. When Binz Hall was being built, there were leftover materials, and rather than wasting them, the excess materials were used to create the Heitkamp Planetarium. The original projector—a 1963 Goto Venus—is still the projector being used today.

Despite its historical significance as a 50-year-old projector, it is on its last leg. When fully functioning, this technology could project over 2,800 stars as well as the sun, moon, and visible planets in addition to rotating, accommodating these objects as they shifted across the sky depending on the time of year. However, that is no longer the case.

As physics professor Dr. Kenneth McLaughlin says, it’s currently “held together by duct tape.” He’s not kidding — sections of the stars no longer light up on the domed ceiling, the moon and planets no longer shine, and an entire hemisphere no longer projects constellations. Unfortunately, due to its age, replacement parts are not readily found. The only option to retain this valuable resource is to purchase a new projector.

As expected, planetarium projectors are quite costly. An updated version of the current projector would cost half a million dollars. There is no way Loras could afford this purchase on its own, so that’s why an honors group took over the project.

Five current juniors — Natalie Droeske, Austin Kuchenbecker, Jake Till, Celia DaSilva and Audrey Miller — have taken on the task of finding and funding a new star projector for the planetarium. They are mentored by physics professors Dr. Kristen Thompson and Dr. Kenneth McLaughlin. Their goal, by the end of their three-year honors project, is to raise enough money to purchase a star projector. Although half a million dollars is a lofty goal, there are other types of projectors that are a little cheaper. These include digital projectors, which are slightly more pixelated than a light projector such as the Goto Venus, but work perfectly fine for the purposes of the Heitkamp Planetarium.

Loras’ planetarium is an incredibly valuable resource. It is currently used to educate kids from local schools as well as for monthly public shows that are open to Loras students and the general public. However, the use of the planetarium is limited with an unreliable projector.

“With the installation of the new projector, we hope to establish summer camps, weekly events and public showings in order to share this incredible resource with the surrounding community,” said Droeske, a member of the honors group.

Droeske has been an incredibly influential member of the group, heading up the grant writing process and organizing a GiveCampus page in order to raise money.

If anyone is interested in donating, please visit their page and donate money towards this great cause. Another way to support the project is to attend the planetarium movie nights that are taking place once a month. These movies are free and open to the public, but the group will be accepting donations prior to and after the movie. Concessions will also be sold before the movie. The next movie will be taking place on Halloween. Look out for an email in the next week with more information.

The next two scheduled planetarium movies this semester will be on Sunday, Nov. 12, at 7 p.m. and Friday, Dec. 1, at 7 p.m.

The group looks forward to seeing the Loras community at their fund-raising events.  For more information about the project, email Audrey Miller at audrey.miller@loras.edu.

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