ORONO — The Maynard F. Jordan Planetarium and Observatory are getting a $5.2 million upgrade as the Emera Astronomy Center, slated to open this fall. The new all-digital facility will be a grand improvement over the current one.
“It’s head and shoulders, quantum leaps beyond what we’ve had and been able to do before,” said Director Alan Davenport.
The new planetarium’s dome will be 33 feet in diameter versus the current 20-foot dome, which was built in 1954 — about triple the surface area of the old one. There will also be a multipurpose room for classes or for projects, from making paper models of space probes to freezing items in liquid nitrogen.
The new 618-square-foot observatory will be relocated behind the parking lot off Rangeley Road, above most of the campus lighting and affording a clearer view of the night sky.
“Part of the reason we’re putting it in its location is to get to a slightly darker sky for the telescope, so that students and that telescope will be able to see better and see more of the universe,” said Davenport.
The new 20-inch reflector telescope will be light years beyond the existing telescope. It will replace the one that has been in use since 1901 and which has been at its current location since 1930. Its replacement will be fully computer-controlled, even remotely via the Internet; users can open the roof, direct the telescope, view results anywhere, and program the telescope for automated tasks.
The new facility will bear Emera’s name for 10 years, thanks to a $1 million donation by the utility company. However, the bulk of the money — $3.2 million — is from an anonymous donation in 2005. The new planetarium will be the biggest and most advanced in Maine.
“To have it here at the University of Maine is fantastic,” Davenport said. “We will be able to show more of the universe … we’re able to take people to a distance away from the Earth, going to the galaxies or to the stars or to the planets in a way that we never were able to before, with an accurate digital model of the universe.”
The facility will have its grand opening around October; it should be running by and ready for field trips and groups by September The new planetarium will seat 50, just a few more than the old one. But the seats are tiered and clustered toward the center, and the bigger dome is tilted so you don’t have to look straight up. The result is that the view, the show, and the experience will be much better — and more comfortable, too.
“We’re creating kind of a Cadillac experience in planetariums,” Davenport said.
This isn’t to discount the experience at the current planetarium, which continues to offer shows, such as those open to the public on Fridays and Sundays this spring.
“We continue here,” Davenport said. “We still have shows, we still have field trips coming from the schools, and private birthday parties coming in, and we are still offering public shows.”
While he’s eager to see the new place in full swing this fall, Davenport said the old one still has plenty of wow factor for kids whose minds can be opened to science, even if most of them won’t end up pursuing astronomy careers.
“We’re about creating more amateurs,” Davenport said. “Everyone has grass in their back yard and they have stars above it. If you don’t know what’s up there, it continues to be just a mystery.”
The planetarium is where youngsters can learn the basics and understand what’s going on out there — and to steer them from relying on things like urban legends and inaccurate websites and give them a connection to a more authoritative source for information.
“We’re not trying to say that aliens created anything,” Davenport said. “We’re not trying to say that they built the pyramids or seeded our planet necessarily with life, just what really is confirmed by information and data, the real science side of things.”
In his 30 years there, Davenport has seen his share of kids who have “Aha!” moments, the youngsters who are so inspired that they go on to careers in astronomy and physics. But more often he sees more children’s eyes merely opened to the world of science.
“I get a lot of reactions [from kids] that tell me that this is the coolest way to come to an understanding of the universe and our place in it,” he said.