- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 23, 2014

MUNCIE, Ind. (AP) - About 1,800 Ball State University students take introductory astronomy courses each year, which is higher than the number taking such classes at Indiana University, Purdue University and the University of Notre Dame combined.

“Our planetarium helps a lot in engaging our students in astronomy,” said Ball State professor Ronald Kaitchuck, director of the university’s planetarium. “Conventional astronomy classes don’t do as well. With a planetarium, you can show people concepts more three dimensionally than on a flat screen or blackboard.”

The planetarium will cease operations after showings at 7 p.m. and 8 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. It will be replaced in the fall by the new Charles W. Brown Planetarium.

At the final shows, visitors will see 47 Ursae Majoris, a yellow dwarf star, near the Big Dipper, about 46 light years away from Earth in the constellation of Ursa Major.

“It is so far away that light from this star must travel for many years to reach the Earth,” Kaitchuck will tell the final guests. “The light we see tonight left that star in 1967.”

That’s the same year the planetarium, a sky theater that can simulate the night sky at any place on Earth at any time of the year, opened in Room CP 90 at the Cooper Physical Science Building.

While the light from 47 Ursae Majoris was traveling to Earth, the first humans landed on the moon, black holes were found, and robotic rovers drove on Mars - and all of those events were the subject of planetarium programs that have educated an estimated 400,000 visitors.

There are about 50 planetariums in Indiana, most at high schools, middle schools and private colleges. They are often the same size as BSU’s current planetarium. None of the other public universities in Indiana has a planetarium.

BSU’s current planetarium seats 75, bench style. The new planetarium will seat 148, theater style.

“The technology jumps 46 years,” Kaitchuck told The Star Press (http://tspne.ws/1k6jrkw ). “The planetarium we have now projects 1,500 of the brightest stars. The new one projects 10 million. If you think that will not look different, you are underestimating it.”

At the push of a button, the operator of the new planetarium “can fly you to Saturn, fly you through the rings of Saturn, and the whole dome becomes the rings of Saturn,” the professor said. “We will take you into space, instead of looking at it. And it’s accurate, by the way.”

The new planetarium will be one of the largest in the Midwest. Imagine the popularity of introductory astronomy courses when it opens. Kaitchuck also expects more pressure from astronomy textbook salespeople.

“The only reason I am aware of where we rank is from textbook salespeople wanting us to adopt their textbooks,” he said. “One year a guy was real pushy. I asked why he was pushing his textbook so hard on us. He said, ‘You are the Holy Grail. You are the big ticket in the country.’ “

Kaitchuck has since learned the only Big Ten school that has more introductory astronomy students than Ball State is Penn State.

“Penn State has a very active astronomy department,” he added. “We don’t even have an astronomy department. We have a physics and astronomy department.”

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