June 20, 2018
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UMS trustees to consider $5.2M project to combine observatory, planetarium

By Judy Harrison, BDN Staff

ORONO, Maine — Stargazers and school children in northern and eastern Maine will get a better look at the sky if the University of Maine System Board of Trustees on Monday approves the construction of a proposed $5.2 million facility that would combine the observatory and the planetarium at the University of Maine.

The proposal, recommended by system Chancellor Richard Pattenaude, would be built near Rangeley Road between the Hilltop Parking lots and the Littlefield Garden, according to the agenda item summary prepared for Monday’s meeting.

Nearly $2.2 million has been raised through the University of Maine Foundation to pay for the proposed 5,312-square-foot building. Of the remaining funds, $1 million would come from UMaine and another million would need to be raised in a capital campaign over the next three to five years.

The construction of the new building, which would require no additional staff, would increase the university’s annual operating budget by about $180,000.

The observatory, with a telescope dating back to 1900, and the Jordan Planetarium located in Wingate Hall are obsolete, according to Pattenaude.

“[The] telescope has a historic value,” the summary stated, “but is not useful even for the most basic level of astronomy research. It cannot be controlled with a computer and cannot be networked with other observatories around the globe to share research-quality images.”

The planetarium was opened in 1954 and its star projector dates to 1984, according to information provided to board members.

“The projector system is functional, but dated, and does not have the capabilities of a fully digital system,” the summary said. “The existing Jordan Planetarium dome is only 20 feet in diameter, a size so small that it distorts images and does not provide a realistic view of the sky at a level required for college courses.”

The Jordan Planetarium, with 35 seats, has close to 10,000 visitors per year, approximately 66 percent of whom are school children, according to the summary. The proposed planetarium would seat 50.

Bus drop-offs at Wingate Hall currently are a safety concern on busy Munson Road and there is no visitor parking for families and small groups. The new locations would allow for a visitor parking section and safer bus drop-offs for schoolchildren.

The combined planetarium-observatory is a priority of UMaine’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences because it would:

• Enhance physics and astronomy lecture and laboratory programs and research projects.

• Support technologies that provide digital visualization experiences also for the arts, sciences and engineering.

• Allow Honors College students the opportunity to complete honors theses in observational astrophysics, using the new digital telescope.

• Make development of an online astronomy laboratory course possible.

Once the new observatory-planetarium was completed, Wingate Hall would be renovated to create a “student one-stop center,” according to the summary of the project.

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