Ask any astronomer, and they will tell you that the best night skies are found when you get away from light pollution.
The COVID-19 pandemic has not taken away our ability to enjoy watching the stars, but it has prevented the staff of the William M. Staerkel Planetarium at Parkland College from sharing the immersive environment of the dome with the public for the rest of 2020.
Since the cycles of the sky are still in motion, the staff has strived to keep everyone informed about what they can see under dark skies or in their backyard.
While the dome’s projectors are shut down and the offices are closed, staff members have worked from home to connect with the audience.
They generated several backgrounds for people to use during all of their virtual meetings, green screen not included.
They made guides for families to do science activities at home, including some helpful photos of young volunteers.
They expanded the planetarium’s social-media presence by sharing more astronomy news and pictures.
In April, the planetarium celebrated the 30th anniversary of the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope, the instrument that generated thousands of images that have revolutionized our understanding of the universe.
The planetarium was one of two organizations selected in Illinois to display the 30th anniversary commemorative image, an awe-inspiring “cosmic reef” of star formation in the galaxy known as the Large Magellanic Cloud.
The planetarium postponed the live unveiling of this image on site but produced short videos of the staff discussing its favorite photographs taken by the Hubble.
Those videos helped the staff prepare for the planetarium’s newest venture.
Public shows will resume in a live online format later this month.
Although your computer screen doesn’t show a 360-degree view of the sky like the dome, sky-simulation software tools work well enough to help astronomers guide their telescopes at night.
“Prairie Skies,” the live-narrated tour of the night sky through each season, has been adapted to use these same software tools.
The shows that were developed with local school districts will be offered as “virtual field trips” throughout the next year.
The James Kaler Science Lecture Series will also be offered in this fashion on the first Fridays of the month starting in October.
The public-show schedule for the Staerkel Planetarium will be available at parkland.edu/planetarium.
Contact the staff at firstname.lastname@example.org for information about show information or booking private shows or virtual field trips.
You can learn more about the Champaign County Museums Network at champaign countymuseums.org.
Erik Johnson is the director of the William M. Staerkel Planetarium at Parkland
College. He can be reached