I just got back from a tremendous experience located 18 miles north of Ithaca, New York. The place was a planetarium attached to Southern Cayuga Central School. This is not all there was. There is also an observatory behind it as well. It is all operational thanks to two dedicated individuals that saw an opportunity to bring Astronomy to the people. And bring it they did with style and ingenuity.
The Planetarium was built in 1968 in a time when space exploration was the next big thing. This was one of many planetariums that went up about this time. One of the main reasons was cost of the projector. Spitz was an American company. They at the time were in competition with Zeiss. Zeiss planetariums were very expensive. Spitz decided to bring the price down considerably to make astronomy more affordable and increase their share in the market. As a result, there were many schools that could afford to put a planetarium in and they did. It was a great time to be alive.
As time marched on, the planetarium here at Cayuga as well as many others was used less and less as teachers were not trained to use the instrument. Programs were getting dated which eventually caused the planetarium to fall into disuse. Enter Alan Ominsky, director and Rob West, assistant director. They knew of a man that was running the planetarium from time to time but his heart was not in it. Together they took over the planetarium. They have cleverly added digital projectors to the 1968 era electronic architecture. That in it's self should be applauded. The Spitz projector works like a champ still. Mr. Ominsky has a graphic arts background so bringing new life to presentations was a no brainer.
On the night of my visit I saw a typical planetarium presentation with Mr.Ominsky pointing out and describing some easy to see constellations and how to locate "stuff" This was getting the audience familiar with the sky for the observing program later. then I was treated to a presentation of Hubble Vision. It is an updated presentation using three screens and different effects. I was impressed with the entire production. There was a minor timing glitch on this occasion. It really did not affect the program very much. If Alan had not pointed it out to me I would not have noticed.The monthly presentation was well attended drawing 40 or so people. Alan tells me sometimes he has to do two shows because of overflow. Now that's a successful endeavor!
Is this the end of the story ? Not even close... Alan and Rob were not satisfied to tell about the skies they wanted to let the people actually experience the grandeur of the night skies. In 2004 they with the help of many built an observatory behind the planetarium. It was made operational in 2005 with the ribbon being cut by a state congressional member and a senior at the school. It is a pretty large structure as observatories of this nature go. There is room for two piers. One spot is already filled with a Meade LX200 GPS 14" Schmidt-Cassegrain scope. This scope was the only one in operation at the time of my visit. On very big nights they supplement the 14 with an 8" LX90 , a Unitron F15 refractor and an Orion 8" Newtonian reflector which incidentally was awarded to a past student for a paper written on the Hubble space telescope. On this night the experts were Alan Ominsky and Moe Arif Alan handled the scope and Moe kept the audience engaged by describing the constellations and noting some interesting items like the Andromeda galaxy (M31) This observatory sits under Mag 6.2 skies on moonless nights!. I could see the Milky way as well as all the stars in the little dipper (ursa minor) even with the parking lot lights on in the distance. Mr. Ominsky brought the scope to bare on double stars and then on the moon, and Jupiter. He ended up showing the Andromeda Galaxy along with satellite galaxy M32.
The future for this magnificent piece of work is bright Colleges have contacted the observatory and have added a SBIG Astro camera and Laptop so they can use the facility for Cepheid Variable research. I tip my hat to these men of vision. There are many more improvements that need to be done. Here is a grand opportunity for a grant writer out there. The link to the planetarium is Here. I encourage all to attend this place if you get the chance. Maybe you are a person of vision. There are many opportunities in your community just like this one. There are many Planetariums sitting unused. Here is your big chance to do something that matters. Go for it! Alan and Rob have proven it can be done!