At D.C. Planetarium, See Stars in a New Light

By Jessica McFadden
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, March 13, 2009

George was a sturdy old workhorse, but it was time to pass the torch to his more high-tech little brother, Seymour.

At Rock Creek Park's Planetarium, the only planetarium in the National Park Service, the rangers recently retired George, the antiquated analog projector that had served the facility faithfully for 39 years. Two weeks ago, the planetarium unveiled the punnily named Seymour (as in "see more"), a state-of-the-art digital projector selected to exhilarate and educate star-seeking families through breathtaking images.

Rangers present curriculum-based planetarium shows for a variety of ages and attention spans several times each week. The addition of the new projector's power, software and computer-generated and satellite images has opened a new world of opportunities for the domed classroom.

"The sky's truly the limit as to what we can show and teach, and our mouths are watering as to what we're now able to do," said ranger and amateur astronomer Ron Harvey Jr.

In regularly scheduled planetarium shows, children and their parents can view the celestial bodies visible in the Washington sky without star-obscuring light pollution. The rangers engage the kids with stories of the constellations, and tips on how to identify stars and planets, and then use Seymour's capabilities to turn the participants into virtual astronauts as they explore the landscape of various planets.

Young planetarium guests are not disappointed. "I liked seeing the Milky Way and the stories about the constellations and when the stars came out on the screen. It was neat," said star enthusiast Sophia Kotschouby, 6, of Silver Spring. "When we lived in New Jersey I could see maybe four stars at night, and here I can see only one or two."

Parents appreciate the relaxed and age-appropriate atmosphere of the programs.

"My youngest is almost 3 and he was a little young for the show, but my 4 1/2 -year-old was into it. I liked that the ranger was patient and didn't hover; he allowed the kids to act their age, be themselves without making us parents feel guilty if our children weren't quietly perfect the whole time," said Amy Elliott, 32, of Bethesda.

The rangers hope that children leave the planetarium with not only their complimentary evening sky map and an ability to identify Venus and Orion, but an interest to preserve and protect natural resources and reduce light pollution.

Special upcoming programs include "Women in the Stars," a planetarium show and celebration of women pioneers in planetary science, and "Exploring Mars," a combination planetarium presentation and robotic rover exhibition on a simulated martian landscape.

On the third Saturday night of the month from April to November, the rangers and the National Capital Astronomers leave the simulated night sky behind and take the teaching outdoors, offering stargazing sessions with telescopes at Military Field off Military Road.

Programs at the planetarium are always free, but come early: Only 75 tickets are distributed 30 minutes before each presentation, and once the doors to the theater close, no admittance or reentry is permitted. While waiting for the show to start, kids can visit the animals (both live and taxidermic), the playroom and interactive exhibits of the Rock Creek Nature Center, a kid-friendly destination in its own right.

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