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Mt. Hood sets sights on hidden cosmos

College's Star Projection system gets rave reviews


by: COURTESY OF PAT HANRAHAN - Pat Hanrahan, MHCC Planetarium director, stands in front of a dome display of Saturn. The Planetarium allows you to view different perspectives of the planets and their orbits around the sun. Traveling through space is a privilege generally limited to astronauts, who must train years to do so.

But now you don’t have to pore through science textbooks or learn how to deal with a low-gravity environment to get a front seat on what astronauts see or, for that matter, what a space probe records.

Instead, you can buy a $2 ticket to a show at the Planetarium’s Sky Theater, located beneath the library at Mt. Hood Community College, 26000 S.E. Stark St., Gresham.

The theater debuted its new Star Projection System on Dec. 3, to standing-room-only crowds at three shows. Planetarium Director Pat Hanrahan coordinated with the University of Washington and Microsoft’s Research Division — which donated manpower to help install it — to adapt the new digital projection system to the planetarium.

In addition to Mt. Hood, OMSI, 1945 S.E. Water Ave., Portland, also houses a planetarium (visit omsi.edu).

Hanrahan says the new system at MHCC is similar to one used at the University of Washington.

“The new imagery capabilities of the new system are amazing,” Hanrahan says. “The whole system is based on Microsoft’s free software called WorldWide Telescope and off-the-shelf projectors.”

Financed through Mt. Hood funds, grants and admission fees to shows, installing the system cost a little more than $50,000 — and it’s actually cheaper, in 2013 dollars, than the planetarium’s old projection system, which the theater will retain for use when needed.

“(The new system) greatly expands our capabilities of showing the night sky and also allows close examination of the planets, including Earth and the major moons of the solar system,” Hanrahan says. “We can draw lines between the stars, so you can get some idea of where the constellations are. I can connect all the stars in a constellation and zoom in on an area.”

Using the system, Hanrahan can take students and audiences on a virtual journey through space, he says.

“You couldn’t see any details on Mars with the old system,” he says. “Now I can show you the biggest mountain in the solar system, Mount Olympus on Mars (which stands almost 14 miles high). We can ‘climb up’ the mountain, and I can also show you where the Mars Rover is, in Gale Crater, and show you what Mars looks like from various sides using 3-D imagery.”

For displaying the night sky, the system uses images from the National Geographic Palomar Observatory in California and images of the southern sky taken by the UK Schmidt telescope in Australia.

“We can also display the sky using images from other telescope surveys, including those from space satellites,” Hanrahan says. “Overall, the new system provides an exhilarating experience and a powerful educational tool. It will also rank as one of the higher-resolution digital planetariums in the country with a resolution of about 10 million pixels.”

Hanrahan adds that the system is not just for astronomers — he can modify it for use by other students at Mt. Hood, including geology students who can study earthquake patterns with it.