Part circus sideshow, part educational tool, the astronomy department of the University of Washington in Seattle has put together a low-cost travelling planetarium. Assembled by a team of students and researchers comprised of John Wisniewski, Phil Rosenfield, Oliver Fraser, Justin Gailey, and Nell Byler, the apparatus is intended to travel to area schools for presentations.
At 10 feet tall and 20 feet across, the fabric dome is large enough to accommodate an entire classroom’s worth of budding astronomers. The whole contraption, built by GoDome, is held up by an industrial-strength fan, and looks suspiciously like a bouncy castle that you’d find at a carnival or county fair.
The fully functional, highly interactive planetarium is powered by a single laptop and uses Microsoft’s readily available Worldwide Telescope software. It will reveal “the cosmos in multiple wavelengths and frequencies and over time, with three-dimensional simulations of the movement of planets, stars and galaxies.” While previous similar digital planetariums required a variety of expensive equipment, in total the whole shebang cost less than $20,000 to put together. It does seem like this would be a pretty damn cool way to see images like these projected on an inflatable dome.
According to Rosenfield, though the planetarium at the University has numerous students that bus in to tour the facility, there is a shocking lack of Seattle-based visitors. That discrepancy served as the impetus for the project. If they won’t come to the stars, you can take the stars to them.
The team has already done a handful of presentations, and is working out a variety of hands-on approaches to get the students more involved.