Journey through space

Under a 30-foot starry dome, planetarium volunteers 'alter time and bend it to our will'

Posted: Friday, January 01, 2010

About 7 p.m. Dec. 29, around 40 Juneauites took a journey through space and time - to New Zealand, on Dec. 19.

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Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire

They weren't time travelers or teleporters . They didn't even board an airplane. Instead, they took their journey in the planetarium inside the Marie Drake building.

Juneau's planetarium has been around for longer than many Juneauites, but it's still quite common for people not to know it exists.

"I run into people that have been here for decades and didn't know it was here," said volunteer Dolly Kremers. "It's just gone by the wayside."

For quite a few years, one of those people was self-described amateur astronomer Clark Branch. He and volunteer John Kremers on Tuesday led talks on the night sky, pointing out the North Star (one of the brightest objects in the sky, the stars close by appear to spin around it), talking about ways to tell planets from stars (stars twinkle, planets don't) pointing out constellations (Gemini, Orion, a Juneau-specific constellation that depicts former volunteer Michael Orelove as a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat.)

Last Tuesday, the show focused on theories about the Christmas star. Was it a conjunction of planets? A supernova? A comet? Other evenings have featured yoga under the stars, "drive-in" movie nights, and more.

The planetarium, built in the 1960s, dates back to the days when the Juneau School District had an astronomy teacher.

There are clear marks on the floor from where the planetarium's bolted down reclining seats were removed - and never replaced - so that the room could be used for storage in the 1980s. It was rescued by a small but dedicated group of volunteers in 1991.

For the last 18 years, it's been kept in operation by that informal group, the Friends of the Marie Drake Planetarium. The Kremers, said Branch, are "the rock" of the current volunteer group.

Juneau Community Schools helps out with scheduling and printing; the school district does maintenance on the room, but the volunteers are the stewards of the planetarium. The group also collects money for necessary repairs, but the machine is old, and in a digital world, parts are expensive and hard to come by.

Joyce Kitka of Community Schools said there is only one person in the United States that does maintenance on the "star ball." Volunteers recently bought two new bulbs on e-bay, she said.

A missing lens means there are sometimes two suns in the sky, and planets don't always move where they're supposed to.

"It's got problems, but it still functions to some degree anyway," said John Kremers. "It's getting old; the light bulbs are kind of weak that project the stars... they wear out after a while. You can't buy them anymore ... so it's kind of one of those things that at some point the school system will make a decision."

That decision will most likely come whenever the Marie Drake building is renovated, he said.

"It's really sad, because it's an incredible facility," said Kitka. "We want to make sure it's protected because it's virtually impossible to repair."

Despite the needed improvements, the aging planetarium retains its capacity to "alter time and bend it to our will," as Branch puts it.

"You can learn a lot by going outside and looking at the stars," said Kremers. "This gives you an opportunity when the stars aren't always available to learn about the constellations, how the planets work, how the sun interacts with the Earth in its orbit. It's also beneficial because it encourages kids that may not have any knowledge to seek more information ... and some might go on to have more interest in science than they might otherwise."

One of those kids is 9-year-old Isabella Bugayong, who helps with the raffle and the star machine. She also designs posters.

"I like it," she said. "I'm interested in the planets."

The Bugayongs started coming several years ago because it was close and free, said Isabella's mother, Mindy. "It's always been fun," she said.

The family also now seeks out planetariums on vacation, recently visiting the California Academy of Sciences.

The planetarium is also regularly used by a class at Yaakoosge Daakahidi Alternative High School, occasionally by some Juneau School District teachers, by the University of Alaska Southeast and individual groups like the Boy Scouts and the Girl Scouts.

"We try to accommodate as much as we can if groups want to (come)," said Kremers. "We welcome groups to call us if they have special needs."

The group also is looking for new volunteers.

The planetarium is open Tuesday evenings from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. except the last Tuesday of the month, when the group offers a special show from 6:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m..

"Everything at the planetarium is free," said Kremers. "There's no charge for coming in to see the show and learning how to use the machine - our goal is to keep the planetarium used. Really, right now, this group is the only user of the planetarium."

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