ORONO, Maine — The University of Maine broke ground Monday on a $5.2 million project that will give its students a better view of the heavens.
Officials celebrated at the future site of the Emera Astronomy Center, which will serve as the new home of the Maynard F. Jordan Planetarium and Observatory, during an afternoon ceremony. Construction begins in mid-May and it could open as early as the fall semester of 2014, according to the university.
The new planetarium dome will be 33 feet in diameter — making it 13 feet wider than its predecessor in Wingate Hall and the largest planetarium dome in the state. It will display a more realistic, immersive likeness of the night sky for students curious about the universe, officials said.
The old dome, built in Wingate Hall in 1954, “had long since shut the door on new education methods and technologies,” according to Alan Davenport, director of Maynard F. Jordan Planetarium. Davenport said the astronomy center’s leap forward would give students at all levels, not only at UMaine but across the state, a chance to experience science and math in new ways.
UMaine’s old telescope has even more history behind it. The university purchased the telescope in 1901. It was housed in a different spot on campus before it was moved to its current location, near what is now Memorial Union, in 1930.
At the time, the observatory was on the outskirts of campus. Eight decades later, it’s close to the center, and increasing light pollution reduced its capabilities as the campus grew and got brighter, according to Davenport.
The future 618-square-foot observatory will place the new telescope back on the fringes of campus, behind the parking lot off Rangeley Road, where the skies are darker. Both the observatory and planetarium will have specialized red LED aerial lighting to reduce light pollution while maintaining visibility on the ground.
“The big difference will be having a telescope that the students can use in an entirely different way than what we have done in the past,” David Batuski, chairman of the university’s Department of Physics and Astronomy, said Monday. For example, the new digital telescope will be able to take long exposure images of the night sky. Computers, rather than people, will point it at the desired celestial body.
“We will see deeper into space,” Davenport said. “We will see smaller objects than we’ve ever been able to see with our telescope.”
The old telescope is still a “heritage piece,” according to Davenport. While it hasn’t been worked into the plans for the new observatory, Davenport said he would like to see the old telescope placed in the new facility.
The Emera Astronomy Center will be located near the intersection of Rangeley and Long roads on campus, next to the Lyle E. Littlefield Ornamental Trial Garden.
Emera Inc., the Nova Scotia-based parent company of Bangor Hydro-Electric Co. and Maine Public Service, recently announced a $1 million gift to move the project forward. In return, the new planetarium and observatory will carry the company’s name.
About seven years ago, an anonymous donor offered the university $3.2 million to modernize its outdated astronomy facilities. The $1 million Emera gift left the university to come up with another $1 million in funding, which came out of university funds, according to Janet Waldron, UMaine’s senior vice president for administration and finance.
The University of Maine System Board of Trustees approved the project in the summer of 2011.
“This is truly an opportunity for the UMaine community and the state to celebrate Emera’s investment in the University of Maine, the study and appreciation of Maine’s night sky, and the spirit of philanthropy,” UMaine President Paul Ferguson said. “This facility, with its focus on education and outreach, will be a landmark in Maine; and it would not have happened without Emera’s generous gift.”
Maine-based construction firm Nickerson & O’Day will be in charge of construction. Bangor’s WBRC designed the facility, which will use geothermal heating. WBRC Architects and Engineers has teamed up with the university on several other building projects. The first was Lord Hall in 1903, a year after the firm was founded.
“The new center will help people to see themselves as part of a much bigger universe,” Davenport said.