Parkland College; the proud of owner of Illinois’ second largest Planetarium

Photo by Scott Wells/Prospectus News  Production Designer Waylena McCully mans the Digistar Four projection console at the William M. Staerkel planetarium.    Staerkal is the second largest planetarium in the state of Illinois.

Photo by Scott Wells/Prospectus News
Production Designer Waylena McCully mans the Digistar Four projection console at the William M. Staerkel planetarium. Staerkal is the second largest planetarium in the state of Illinois.

Humna Sharif
Staff Writer

Staerkel Planetarium is named after the college’s founding President, William M. Staerkel. The planetarium was included in the original structural plans of the college, but it took twenty years after the inception of the college for it to be built.

On October 1 of 1987, after the construction work was done, the planetarium was dedicated to President Staerkel. On October 10, 1987 the new Staerkel Planetarium opened its gates to community members and general public.

“Now over 20 years later the College continues to mature and develop, we see the dream realized with the dedication of Parkland’s Cultural Center. This is indeed a joyful occasion,” Staerkel remarked in a letter written for the ceremony. “To see our dreams come true after all these years gives us a wonderful feeling of pride and satisfaction as we look at this latest addition to this remarkable institution of higher education.”

Now more than 27 years later, the Staerkel Planetarium has come a long way since its inauguration. In the summer of 2010, all the old projector technology in the planetarium was stripped out and replaced with new machinery. The digitization of the planetarium was an important step on the part of Parkland administration to keep up with the changing times.

According to Director of the Planetarium David Leake, the digital technology is amazing and allows the staff to put on much better shows. The digitization was significant for more than just astronomy. The planetarium can also host meteorology and Earth science classes, and is hoping to host an upcoming biology class as well.

“We have gone from physical buttons and dials (which run gears and motors) to a computer screen where we can push virtual buttons and things happen on the dome,” Leake explained.

The star machine that the planetarium used to project the night sky was a Carl Zeiss M1015 star projector. This was the first of its kind to be installed in the western hemisphere. There are only three of these machines operating in the country.  However, in 2010 Parkland switched to newer machinery.

David Leake, Planetarium Director and Professor of Natural Sciences, poses next to a poster promoting his book, “Cosmos,” which was Parkland Library’s annual READ Poster in celebration of Nation Library week, which took place April 12-18, 2015.

David Leake, Planetarium Director and Professor of Natural Sciences, poses next to a poster promoting his book, “Cosmos,” which was Parkland Library’s annual READ Poster in celebration of Nation Library week, which took place April 12-18, 2015.

“We have installed a Digistar 4 digital projection system.   It’s not as not as pretty as the Zeiss projector as it consists of two video projectors, but what the system can project on the dome is amazing,” Leake commented.

The planetarium at Parkland is the second largest in the state of Illinois, and its new Digistar System is the first of its kind to be installed in the state. It is a popular field trip spot for schools in the district 505 area and even University of Illinois students. 128 people can be comfortably seated inside the dome.  Planetarium shows provide for the community recreation as well as enhancing their knowledge about the skies.

According to the staff members, the planetarium hosts three types of shows for the public. They pride themselves on the live shows as many of the larger facilities don’t even host live shows. Planetarium staff said they love interacting with audiences, answering their questions, and getting people’s feedback.

Prairie Skies is one of the most popular shows of the planetarium and it has been done on most Friday nights since the opening of the planetarium. It is basically the traditional, constellation “Hey what can you see in the sky tonight?” program of the planetarium.  Current images are put into the show regularly to keep it updated.

Digitally remastered shows are also popular with the planetarium.  These are programs that existed before the facility digitized and the show images existed in slide form.  The content and scripts of these shows were good enough to make the planetarium want to keep them. These slides were converted to newer formats so they could be played on the new system.

Waylena McCully is Staerkel’s show producer, and she has held her position for 15 years.  According to Leake, McCully does a phenomenal job adapting old shows to the new system, programming the new system to adapt to changing needs, and getting new images into existing shows to keep them current.  McCully recently won a Service Award from the Great Lakes Planetarium Association for her work at Staerkel.

Lastly the planetarium has full dome movies which are shows like Dynamic Earth (currently showing), Dawn of the Space Age and Cosmic Colors. As the name suggests these shows use the full expanse of the planetarium dome and provide the viewer with a stellar experience of the earth, our solar system and the cosmos.

The Staerkel Planetarium also partners with the local Champaign-Urbana Astronomical Society for observing the real sky, and events like solar eclipses or comets passing by.

Leake, the director, has been writing a weekly newspaper column for the News-Gazette for almost ten years. This column appears in their Monday morning edition and has backyard sky watching tips. The planetarium has also collaborated with local teachers on several programs.

“Our goal is to support their instruction, we worked with both 4th and 8th grade teachers to produce the shows Our Place in Space, and Sky Cycles, that are based on their respective curricula,” Leake said.

Cindy Reynolds is the facility’s operations manager. She handles all the paperwork and accounting, and keeps the official affairs in order. According to Reynold, the best part about her job is the planetarium itself. Reynolds says that there aren’t many people who work in a place like this. The excited children coming in for field trips, helping to put together the shows and working together in a great team definitely makes Staerkel an interesting place of work

For more information about the planetarium shows, timing and ticket prices, please visit http://bit.ly/1G9QTnv.