By David Markham
A new portable planetarium recently acquired by the Ernie Miller Nature Center will bring the stars indoors for viewing at any time of the day and opens up a world of new program options.
“I am very excited about this new addition because it opens up so many new programming options for us,” said Senior Park Naturalist Amber Lamble. “There are so many astronomy-themed programming options to explore, and the technology has the potential to use the dome for non-astronomy based science and cultural programming. It has been a while since the nature center has been able to add on a new programming avenue that has this much potential. The planetarium system comes with some pre-loaded, next generation science standards meeting lessons for anywhere from kindergarten through high school. It also has some astronomy-related movies that are formatted for the dome. We can also do a free-style night sky simulation to explore the stars and planets of our solar system. It has a lot of potential for programming beyond just space, but that will be a focus for a bit down the road.”
The portable planetarium is basically an inflatable dome which expands to about 10 feet tall and 16 feet wide with the help of a large fan.
“Inside the dome, all outside light is blocked and in the middle is a computer and projector system,” Lamble explained. “The projector is equipped with a special fisheye lens. It can be controlled with a special remote control, a game console controller and an iPad or tablet. The amount of people that can fit inside varies on if you are considering kindergarten students or adults. But I would say around 25-30 people will fit. It is a dome that requires audiences to sit on the floor or in a very low chair.”
Initially, the portable planetarium will be used primarily for outreach programs, with a few public programs offered as well.
“This planetarium provides us an opportunity to bring a unique experiential learning activity to the schools and other groups so they don’t have to worry about transportation,” Lamble said. “I originally presented this as a potential replacement for the winter field trip to the nature center called ‘Archeology Dig.’ That program used to bring in many schools over about one to two months. However, when educational standards changed a few years back, and coupled with funding cuts to field trips, we saw fewer schools attending, eventually dwindling to about two weeks’ worth of programs each season now that we have the planetarium, I am excited to see where the programming takes us in the future.”
“The system can be used for any age group, but I think initially we will focus on elementary school ages and some preschool,” Lamble added. “I want participants to come away with a sense of curiosity and awe about a part of nature that is becoming rarer in modern times. The night sky is essential for so many animals’ natural rhythms and behaviors, including our own, but we have all but blocked the stars from our eyes through light pollution. While not everyone can go to a dark sky sight, this planetarium will help remove the barriers of time and distance to bring the stars and planets closer.”
During the upcoming January through April season, four public programs are being offered which will give participants a chance to experience the planetarium. Three are Preschool Planetarium Programs for ages three to five with adult which will take place at the Ernie Miller Nature Center, 909 N. Kansas 7 Highway, Olathe. These include Animals in the Sky on Jan. 10, P is for Planet on Feb. 7, and Sky Stories on March 7. Advance registration is required for these 30-minute programs, which cost $5 per person. The fourth program is also called Sky Stories and is for ages three to six. This 45-minute program will meet at 10:30 a.m. on Feb. 21 at the Meadowbrook Park Clubhouse, 9101 Nall Ave., Prairie Village. The cost is $8 per person or $9 for nonresidents.
Lamble said she began researching her proposal to acquire the portable planetarium in late 2017 or early 2018, and by early 2020, the decision had been made to pursue the purchase. Then COVID lockdowns occurred and delayed the purchase effort, which was picked up in 2022 after things returned to some semblance of normal, and funding for the purchase was acquired. This delay actually allowed JCPRD to get a model that is more updated than it would have been able to acquire previously.
It was Lamble’s personal love for astronomy and her success in presenting related JCPRD programs over the past several years that made her the driving force behind acquiring the portable planetarium.
She recalls visiting an old-style planetarium when she was in kindergarten.
“That made a huge impact on me and I got my first star wheel or planisphere when I was six,” she said. “As a kid, I lived on a farm in the country, and I would spend hours looking at the stars and seeing if I could find the right ones for the constellations on my wheel. My interests were of pretty much everything in the natural world, which eventually led me to here and being a park naturalist. I love astronomy for several reasons. I love space and all of the unknowns it contains. It is almost like looking at the world’s oldest book. I have always been amazed with space and the stars. My first astronomy program presentation was an Orionid Meteor shower viewing, during which I did a guided tour of the visible constellations and their stories. I was very nervous and worried that people wouldn’t be as into it as I was. I was wrong. It was amazing to share those stories and experience the meteor shower as a group. Not only did we see some meteors, but we also got to hear owls and coyotes, which for many of the people there, it was their first time locating constellations and hearing some of those nocturnal animals.”