Constellations, Pluto, the North Star—it's hard to pinpoint what visitors like most at the Charles W. Brown Planetarium. Almost all the shows have been full in its first year of operation.
"Everything seems to do well," said Ronald Kaitchuck, the planetarium's director. "Years ago, it was too geeky to go to a planetarium. Now it's kind of a cool thing. It's changed a lot."
Ronald Kaitchuck, director of the Charles W. Brown Planetarium,
discusses how the staff serve as role models for children and how the
planetarium is a source of inspiration for students.
The planetarium, which opened to the public in November 2014, had 20,105 visitors in its first year. That's more than double the 9,400 people who visited the old planetarium during its last full year. In addition, the new facility has provided entrepreneurial learning opportunities for students and expanded how visitors learn about outer space.
The facility, the largest in Indiana, seats 152 in its 52-foot-diameter dome. At the center, a projector creates a night sky of 10 million stars and allows the audience to "travel" through the galaxy. Previously, viewers could see only 1,400 stars and only from Earth.
"It's amazing to have that technology," said Brittany Short, a graduate student who works at the planetarium. "It's one of the reasons I decided to stay at Ball State. I wouldn't have had that experience anywhere else."
Planetarium staff and students craft original shows
With shows offered almost every weekend, the planetarium has increased the number of programs. Soon after the Brown Planetarium opening, staff and students began using the old facility to produce their own shows, rather than buying all of them. Two Ball State productions have debuted so far—one about Saturn and the other on Pluto.
"It's amazing to have that technology. It's one of the reasons I decided to stay at Ball State. I wouldn't have had that experience anywhere else."
— Brittany Short,
graduate student and planetarium employee
"Before we started construction, I said, 'Maybe after two or three years, we'd be to the point where we started creating our own shows,'" Kaitchuck said. "Well, we were doing that within six months."
Staff and volunteers also made exhibits to introduce guests, in a hands-on way, to subjects the shows cover.
Among the exhibits, one station lets visitors place their arms into vacuum chamber glove boxes to experience the pressure differentials astronauts encounter. Another allows visitors use magnetic wands to detect iron on the moon's surface.
The interactive stations and original shows are just a few of the new ideas that the Brown Planetarium has generated.
"My brain is still formulating what we can do," Kaitchuck said. "In many ways, the facility is better than I expected it to be."
Schools welcome the educational asset to the community
Muncie area teachers and students flocked to the new planetarium, with nearly 3,600 visitors coming with school groups during the 2014-15 academic year.
Lisa Brand, a third grade teacher at East Washington Academy in Muncie, has already scheduled two field trips.
"The No. 1 thing is that it is right in our backyard and that it is free," Brand said. "People think the planetarium is just stars and the night sky, and if you're not studying that, then it doesn't apply to you. But it's so much more than that."
Brand's students were able to see shows that clearly explained class topics as complicated as light absorption.
"It's pretty abstract," she said. "We did some activities in class. But to be able to see it in person made all the difference.
"And then they're saying, 'Hey, can we come back with our family?' Of course!"
See a planetarium show
Want to "travel" through 10 million stars? The Charles W. Brown Planetarium hosts free shows throughout the year.
Check out upcoming programs.