ORONO, Maine — A group of more than 80 children from the Orono area signed and helped raise a beam atop the future home of the University of Maine’s $5.2 million observatory and planetarium Monday afternoon.
The Emera Astronomy Center, the future home to Maynard F. Jordan Planetarium, is expected to open in time for the fall 2014 semester. Officials broke ground on the project in late April.
“This is being built for people like you,” Nickerson & O’Day President Karl Ward told the throng of kids.
The new planetarium dome will be 33 feet in diameter — 13 feet wider than its predecessor in Wingate Hall. It will be the largest planetarium dome in Maine. It will display a more realistic, immersive likeness of the night sky for students curious about the universe, according to Alan Davenport, director of Maynard F. Jordan Planetarium.
Davenport said the planetarium and observatory would be a frequent stop for student groups and another notch in the belt for the university’s support of science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, education.
The new planetarium projectors and software will allow students to “fly” through different parts of the universe, planet to planet, star to star. To get children interested in STEM programs, it’s vital to make sure they’re “doing science as opposed to looking at it.”
Kids at Monday’s event were attending summer camps through Orono, Veazie and Old Town Parks and Recreation programs.
The children, officials from UMaine, WBRC Architects, Emera Inc., and the Challenger Learning Center signed the beam before the kids gave a crane operator the signal to hoist it into place. Several kids shouted for the workers atop the structure to be careful as they prepared to secure the black beam in place.
At some point, the Challenger Learning Center hopes to move into the facility, according to Ward.
Ward said this was Nickerson & O’Day’s first observatory-planetarium project in its nearly 60-year history. The company has been working closely with the university, WBRC Architects and Kasian Architecture, which has designed several planetariums in the past.
UMaine’s old telescope, which sits in an aging observatory near Memorial Union, was purchased in 1901. It was housed in a different spot on campus before it was moved to its current spot around 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. The main planetarium building is being built on top of that parking lot. Both the observatory and planetarium will have specialized red LED aerial lighting to reduce light pollution while maintaining visibility on the ground.
The project was funded primarily through an anonymous $3.2 million donation made about seven years ago, but the university struggled for several years to find a way to cover the remainder, according to university officials.
Emera Inc., the Nova Scotia-based parent company of Bangor Hydro-Electric Co. and Maine Public Service, bought the naming rights for the astronomy center for $1 million. The final $1 million needed to launch the project came from university funds.
“It’s a reality that we’ve been waiting a long time for, and it’s exciting to see it finally come up,” Davenport said.