A SCIENTIFIC EXPERIENCE
Morehead Planetarium takes innovative approach to education
by Leah Hughes
The giant sundial outside the Morehead Planetarium and Science Center intrigues individuals strolling or driving along East Franklin Street in Chapel Hill. The iconic center continues to wow visitors 61 years after its dedication.
“Science isn’t the private domain of professionals who’ve completed years of higher education and spend their days doing experiments in cramped laboratories,” says Karen Kornegay, marketing manager.
“It’s an opportunity for everyone to see and understand how our world works,” she adds. “Science is all around us, and it’s fascinating, and it’s accessible.”
To space and beyond
Morehead has offered instruction to a variety of individuals throughout its history, from elementary school students to astronauts. Many of those astronauts — including Alan Shepard, the first American in space, and Neil Armstrong, the first man to set foot on the moon — studied celestial navigation at Morehead before computer navigation became reliable in 1975.
Today, Morehead offers instruction to many aspiring astronauts, as its staff designs programs specifically for school field trip groups. For example, the Magic Tree House Space Mission — designed for children in kindergarten through third grade — provides a fun, educational experience based on a popular children’s book series. All shows include lesson plans and vocabulary guides, which allow teachers to supplement classroom learning.
Star of the show
Morehead’s shows take place in the Star Theater, a circular room with a 68-foot-diameter dome that provides stadium seating for 300 stargazers. For 40 years, a Zeiss Model VI star projector has cast images around the dome ceiling to simulate the night sky. This year, a full-dome digital video projection system will be added.
The Zeiss Model VI is one of only five of its kind remaining in the country. The intricate system involves hundreds of moving parts that must remain in sync for a successful show. As the system ages, replacement parts are difficult to find when breakdowns occur.
With the new digital system, a computer regulates all of the shows’ features, increasing visual quality and special effects. The staff compares the change to the difference between an animated cartoon from the 1930s and a current blockbuster action film.
“The immersive environment of full-dome digital video creates the illusion that you’re actually in the show rather than just watching it,” Kornegay says.
Expanding its reach
In 2002, the center expanded its scientific reach beyond astronomy and added “science center” to its name. The new name represents an initiative to offer visitors a broader scientific experience.
With the old projection model, the sky was the limit. But digital projection makes it possible to create different illusions, such as being underwater. New programs will explore various scientific fields; biology shows might take place in the human body, while geology shows might travel through the earth’s layers.
The digital projection system, which cost $1 million to incorporate, also helps Morehead counteract budget cuts. The new programs designed by its staff will be compatible with technology at planetariums around the world. The center will lease its original programs for viewing at other planetariums, bringing in several thousand dollars in revenue for each lease, Kornegay says. Planetariums in New York, Maine and Wyoming already have shown Morehead’s first program designed for the digital projection system, called “Earth, Moon and Stars.”
But even with this new technology, the Star Theater can’t replace the real thing, so Morehead has continued to expand its programs outside the building as well. One Saturday night each month, it hosts a Skywatching Session in which attendees visit Jordan Lake State Recreation Area to catch a glimpse of objects in the night sky. Educators and experienced observers tell stories about constellation myths and legends and answer questions during the event. This spring, Mars, Mercury, Saturn and Venus will make appearances among the stars.
Fulfilling a vision
As Morehead diversifies its programming and updates its technology, it continues to fulfill the vision of its founder, John Motley Morehead III.
Morehead graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1891. One of his many contributions to his alma mater was the planetarium. In 1949, his gift became the sixth planetarium in the U.S., and the first in the South. The Winston-Salem Journal and Sentinel stated upon the center’s opening: “A scientist himself, he recognized that the American people must understand science.”
Today, every wide-eyed visitor who sits in the Star Theater is one step closer to understanding.
Leah Hughes is a senior in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
If you go
The Morehead Planetarium and Science Center is located at 250 E. Franklin St. in Chapel Hill. The center is open from 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and from 1-4:30 p.m. Sunday, with additional hours from 6:30-11:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Admission is $6 for adults and $5 for children, students, and senior citizens. For information about specific showtimes or additional programs, call (919) 962-1236 or visit www.moreheadplanetarium.org.