Projecting into the future

For the last fifty-five years, Loras Heitkamp Planetarium has been conducting star and planet presentations with the aid of an opto-mechanical Goto Venus projector system. This projector served the college well during its time in Heitkamp, but unfortunately, it had vastly deteriorated over the years. By the time the senior honors students Natalie Droeske, Austin Kuchenbecker, Celia da Silva, Jake Till, and Audrey Miller arrived at Loras College as first-years in the fall of 2015, the projector had lost all functionality to show the moon, planets, sun, sunsets, and southern hemisphere. Additionally, black spots had already appeared (and continued to appear) in the Northern hemisphere, which was essentially the last remaining presentation capability of the projector.  In the fall of 2016, the group took on their three-year honors project: replacing the Heitkamp Planetarium projector.

The cost of bringing in an updated opto-mechanical projector, similar to the original Heitkamp projector, would be in the realm of half of a million dollars. The alternative projector type on the market would be a digital projector technology; this is the route the honors group opted to take. After a two-and-a-half year-long campaign of projector company research, grant-writing, and crowd-source fundraising, the arrival of a new $80,000 laser projector system: the Emerald-Fixed planetarium projector system is here. The system was installed in Jan. 2019 and is ready to be used for presentations. The functionality on this new system includes far more resources and capabilities than the original opto-mechanical projector did. The Emerald system can now show not only the sun, solar system, and the Milky Way galaxy, but also distant planetary nebulas and other galaxies. Its capabilities are extensive, and many groups will be able to be serviced with the new technology.

“We’re so honored to have the support of the Loras and Dubuque communities,” Droeske said, “and we’re so excited to be able to share this new resource with them.”

This momentous feat would not have been possible without generous community, alumni, and student support. Along with celebrating the arrival of a new projector, the honors group is also celebrating all the contributions that led to bringing this projector onto the Loras campus.

It’s important to highlight the many generous contributions it took to get the Emerald system on campus. Free-will student donations took place during the many movie nights that were held in the planetarium last year, and many students purchased the Heitkamp Planetarium shirts that were sold last semester. Many local organizations—the Dubuque Racing Association, the McDonough Foundation, the Wahlert Foundation, the Dubuque Farm Bureau, Thrivent Financial, and the Kasper Family Foundation—provided the group with grant money and generous donations that allowed the fundraising-based project to become a reality. Extensive individual community and alumni donations also poured in with the creation of a GoFundMe page and from word-of-mouth communications between donors.

“It’s been a journey that we’ve been happy to share with each other, the Loras Honors program, and the campus and community at large,” Kuchenbecker said.

The group is grateful for all the ups and downs that this two-and-a-half year-long project has brought, and for the ultimate success of this ambitious project. To celebrate the purchase and installation of this new equipment, the planetarium will be hosting a ribbon-cutting ceremony in the Heitkamp Planetarium this Friday, Feb. 22, at 5:30 p.m. Doors open at 4:30 p.m., and immediately following the ceremony, there will be a presentation on the projector capabilities, along with a Q&A session about the new system. Refreshments will be served starting at 4:30 p.m. Additionally, more Heitkamp Planetarium t-shirts will be sold at this event if you were unable to purchase one last semester. The image on the front of these shirts is a starmap from GreaterSkies, Ltd., featuring the night sky as it would have appeared in 1964 on the first night the planetarium hosted a show.

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Audrey Miller is a writer for The Lorian.

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