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Major planetarium renovation complete; Public is invited to grand opening celebrations this weekend

The completed upgrade to the Robert H. Goddard Planetarium will enable projections to fill the entire dome ceiling, and better programs and educational offerings are anticipated as a result. (Submitted Photo)

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City leaders associated with the planetarium say area residents will experience space and science in a different way now that the facility has completed a major renovation.

The $380,000 upgrade project at the Robert H. Goddard Planetarium, funded by local grants, individual donations and city money, has involved not only new paint, lighting, carpeting and tilted seating, but, more significantly, the first upgrade to its projection system since its opening in 1969.

“There aren’t many communities that have a planetarium,” said Cindy Torrez, executive director of the Roswell Museum and Art Center Foundation, “especially of this caliber.”

The foundation provides some financial support for the city-owned museum, which now operates and staffs the planetarium, originally started and run by the Roswell Independent School District.

The star of the renovation, a DigiStar 6 system by Evans and Sutherlands, can show 2-D and 3-D images, movies or astronomy presentations that display across the entire dome of the planetarium’s ceiling. It also has surround-sound audio. It replaces a system consisting of 28 slide projectors positioned around the dome.

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Internet connectivity will enable staff to download educational or entertainment programs for later use or to “dome-cast” real-time lectures and classes led by experts around the world. It is also possible for people to navigate the projections of cities, constellations or other images while using a game controller.

The public unveiling of the planetarium will occur Saturday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. It will start with a ribbon-cutting and will include free presentations during the day of a 20-minute film, “The Universe,” an exploration of outer space.

Other activities for the Family STEAM Day (Science, Technology, Arts and Math) will include chalk art competitions and hands-on science projects such as building catapults, kaleidoscopes and circuit boards. Food also will be sold.

“We are expecting about 750 people,” said Caroline Brooks, executive director of the museum, “and we will work to accommodate them all.”

Brooks said people are encouraged to pre-register for the science and art activities, which do have fees associated with them.

The cost of the digital upgrade has been covered by fundraising efforts and the city’s commitment of $74,000 during a two-year period, said Torrez.

She said the planetarium also has reached an agreement with the Roswell Independent School District, in which it will pay for maintenance of the facility’s original star ball, decided to be a unique feature among planetariums that should remain. Brooks added that the district also paid to install a new LED light in the ball so that images of constellations are crisper.

“It was a great partnership with the foundation, the city and the community,” said Torrez about the fundraising effort. “I think the people in this community really support this planetarium and see it as an asset. It brings back memories for a lot of them who remember going as students. A lot of people have strong feelings associated with this planetarium.”

The foundation also has raised money by allowing people to name auditorium seats for themselves or others for a donation of $500 a chair. So far, 44 of the 96 chairs have been named, she said, so the foundation will continue to seek donors. Funds raised will be restricted, used only for maintenance or future programs presented by the planetarium, she said.

Roswell is now thought to be the only planetarium in New Mexico to use the DigiStar 6 system, representatives with Evans and Sutherlands said in August 2016 when the project was announced. Another of the four planetariums in the state, one in Alamogordo, has undergone a recent upgrade as well, but uses a different system, Brooks said.

That 500 research centers, universities, stadiums and planetariums worldwide use the DigiStar 6 use the system matters. It means that content is being generated elsewhere that could be used in Roswell. Programs could be about the galaxies, but it also could be a university course about a new cutting-edge technology, a virtual tour of a world-class aquarium or a field trip through a rainforest.

“Programs can be shared on the cloud. So we can purchase something from DigiStar and that would be like 20-, 30-minute shows, but there is also scripting and programs that are being developed by other planetariums around the world and they have the abilities to share those. … So we can use that material as presented or add to it with something of our own.”

Brooks said planetarium shows now will occur Tuesday nights at 7 p.m. and Wednesday and Saturday afternoons at 2 p.m., while coordinator Jeremy Howe is beginning to schedule visits by schools and youth groups.

“For the first three months, we will start a little slower,” said Brooks, explaining that until January, the programs are expected to be pre-produced, with a new program introduced each month. But, she said, Howe is working to create his own shows that will integrate materials from various media, including the star ball.

Brooks said the planetarium plans to develop previews of shows that groups and schools can schedule for later in 2018.

The renovation process began in spring 2016 with planning for the type of equipment wanted. The fundraising campaign and public announcement occurred in August 2016, with construction and equipment installation work started in early 2017.

“It was kind of a whirlwind process once renovation started,” Brooks said.

To pre-register for the opening day activities, call the museum at 575-624-6744, ext. 10.

Senior Writer Lisa Dunlap can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 310, or at reporter02@rdrnews.com.