Monday, January 21st, 2019

Southworth Planetarium a hidden gem on campus

Bradford Spurr

Posted on April 26, 2016 in Community
By USM Free Press

By: Raquel Miller

Southworth Planetarium is one of USM’s hidden treasures. Students who grew up in Maine might remember visiting the Planetarium as a small child on a school field trip, or perhaps, some students visited more recently with a class. Most students pass by the Science building everyday on their way to class without asking themselves: What goes on there?

In 1970, Southworth Planetarium was founded as a gift from Clara Southworth in memory of her husband, Constant Southworth.  Planetariums are dome shaped theaters where the audience looks up at projected videos and images of stars, planets, and constellations for the purpose of education and entertainment.  

Currently, Southworth Planetarium is showcasing for the last time this year a show called Laser Mania.  Laser Mania had a variety of shows available up until April 24. In total, 9 different laser light shows were offered as early as 12 p.m. and as late as 8 p.m., can be viewed – and yes, totally buy the 3D glasses. It’s worth it.  

The Fright Light that was that showed last week was both fun and slightly chilling. The laser lights projected graphic images and patterns along the Planetarium dome as music played in the background.  This particular showing, was definitely aimed at a younger audience, but also accessible to the interests of an adult with the throwback portion of the show that highlighted horror movie classics like Halloween, Friday the 13th, and even The Ring.

During public school vacations, the planetarium hosts several “laser fests” and although they primarily make up the Southworth Planetarium schedule at the moment, the other fifty weeks of the year focus on other interesting subject matter, such as Dinosaurs and Astrology.  

The reason that these awesome, light up shows cannot continue throughout the year is because planetarium does not own its own laser equipment, and while it provides the entertainment purpose of planetariums and is a notable revenue source, it does not necessarily fit into the educational portion of the Southworth Planetarium mission.

Director of Southworth Planetarium, Jerry Lasala, notes the primary visitors to the planetarium are elementary and high school students.

“They account for [almost] two-thirds of our overall attendance,” he stated. “We are also used by some USM classes, especially astronomy, of course, but we have also done special presentations for various English, history, and classics courses and we are always eager to work with any other classes as well.” 

Lasala has been the Southworth Planetarium director for 16 years, after Roy Gallant retired from the position in 2000. A lot has changed since its founding. Gallant and Lasala had to adjust to changes in technology and types of events in order to create involvement at Southworth Planetarium.  As technology and full dome shows upgraded, incorporating the new generations of shows was nearly impossible given the staff, equipment and budget.

“We recently entered into an arrangement with the major U.S. distributor of planetarium shows to be able to present anything in their catalog on demand rather than having to purchase each individual show license at a cost of several thousand dollars,” he stated. “ This gives us the ability to show over 100 different shows rather than the couple of dozen we were formerly limited to, and to allow groups to pick shows that best fit their needs.”

The USM community has the unique ability to have easy, affordable access to a great education tool with the Southworth Planetarium, yet most students do not even realize it exists on campus. All USM students, faculty, and staff, with proof of identification have access to free admission to astronomy matinees and evening shows, and receive discounted pricing on non-credited courses.

Maine is lucky enough to have four planetariums located throughout the state.  One of them being USM’s Southworth Planetarium in Portland and others located in Orono, Fairfield and Lewiston. Each planetarium varies in extravagance and what they have to offer, but each state in the U.S. has a planetarium and gives those who are eager to learn an opportunity to explore their passion for astronomy in a place that builds community.

Once a month, the Planetarium hosts “The Astronomy Cafe,” where admission is run by donation and attendees can participate in informal discussions about different astronomical topics such as Space Weather. This event will take place on Monday May 9 at 7 p.m.

Southworth Planetarium acts as a home base for local astronomers and enthusiasts.  Astronomy clubs and even, Southern Maine Astronomers, hold meetings at the USM location.  Lasala added, “We often will hold evening events where anyone can come and view the sky through telescopes, with the help of Planetarium staff and astronomy club members.”

Whether it be full-dome shows, astronomy courses, music events, birthday parties, guest lectures, or astronomer meetings, Southworth Planetarium has evolved with the efforts of Lasala and planetarium manager, Edward Gleason. Their efforts are welcoming  to what the community needs, and should be taken advantage of.

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