Planetarium trying to reach broader audience with laser show, spaceship game

Peter Floess

Staff Writer

Laser-light shows and a spaceship simulation game are a product of the Parkland planetarium’s efforts to reach a broader audience.

David Leake, the Staerkel Planetarium’s director, says this is the first time that the planetarium is putting on a true laser-light show. From 1990 to 2010, they showed a homemade light show, created by slide projectors and artificial fog, the latter of which allowed the beams from the projector to be seen, looking like real lasers.

“People left thinking we had this radical new laser system,” Leake said.

In 2010, the planetarium started using a digital projection system.

“We had to remove our slide projectors, thus making it impossible to do our old light shows.”

Staerkel decided to create a real laser show this February after the administration mandated budget savings and instructed Parkland departments such as the planetarium to explore new revenue-making measures.

“This is our attempt at increased revenue,” Leake said. “We admit there’s not much educational value to the laser shows, but they are all in good fun and we’re doing it to raise some funds.”

Deane Geiken, the director of Parkland’s WPCD radio, is in charge of bringing the Artemis Bridge Simulator to the planetarium. He hopes people who enjoy playing the Artemis Bridge Simulator will become more interested in the planetarium itself and in Parkland.

Geiken’s desire to bring the simulator to Parkland is inspired by his own experience with a Parkland extracurricular program; when he was a child, he came to Parkland College for a writer workshop, and he enjoyed the workshop so much he decided to attend Parkland for his higher education.

Geiken says the Artemis Bridge Simulator is similar to the “Star Trek” television series, where each player is responsible for a specific task within the ship’s command center.

“[Each team has] a starship and you are on the bridge of that ship, and you have officers that man various duty stations,” Gieken said. “You have the captain, who kind of conducts the game plan for the whole game, the helm, weapons, communications, engineering, and science stations…Each station is a computer or laptop that has just that duty station assigned to it, and all of the computers are linked together so that what happens on one computer might affect how well—or poorly—the other computers perform and…how the outcome of the game is affected.”

“In the end, it is a cooperative game that really requires a team of six people to work together and communicate clearly, succinctly, and successfully for the objectives of the game to be won,” he said. “It really is an incredibly fun game to play with friends or strangers.”

Geiken says the game is a more improved version than the one which was run by the planetarium last fall.

These programs are a result of an attempt to broaden Staerkel’s audience. Leake says most of the planetarium’s money comes from the Parkland student body and visitors from area primary schools. They hope these new programs attract more people from the adult and non-student demographics they do not host with nearly as much frequency.

Erik Johnson, an associate professor of astronomy at Parkland, believes some of best public outreach the Planetarium does is when they incorporate recent astronomical discoveries into their Prairie Skies series, which play every Friday night at 7 p.m. during the school year.

“These are my favorite forms of outreach because they allow people to see the Universe as amazing and beautiful as I do,” Johnson said.

Another recent trend in astronomy outreach that Staerkel practices and that is popular, according to Johnson, is hosting viewing parties for live video streams regarding new astronomical or scientific events, such as a probe launch or a conference regarding a new extraterrestrial discovery.

“[The Staerkel Planetarium]” is a unique space and…you won’t find a planetarium our size in Central Illinois,” Leake said. “We’re sort of the only act in town. We’re also unfortunately a well-kept secret. We exchange ideas on a monthly basis with all of the Champaign County museums in our museums consortium.

“Hopefully this laser event will put us on the map for many new patrons,” Leake said.