New planetarium system reaches for the stars

Harriet Spanel gifts make system possible; planetarium to be more available to campus, community

A new state-of-the art digital projection system has been installed at Western Washington University’s planetarium, the result of generous gifts by Harriet Spanel in memory of her husband, the late Les Spanel, for whom the planetarium is now named.

“Naming a part of Western’s campus isn’t something we take lightly – it’s an honor reserved for those who have played a special role in Western’s past and exemplify its highest values.  With his scholarship, teaching and especially his outreach to the community through the planetarium, Professor Les Spanel meets those criteria in spades. We’re grateful to Harriet Spanel for extending Les’ legacy into the future with this gift, and all it will do to ensure the planetarium remains an important resource for Western and a bridge to the community,” said Western President Bruce Shepard.

The recently installed projection system was unveiled during a ceremony Saturday at the Dr. Leslie E. Spanel Planetarium on Western’s campus. Les Spanel was a longtime physics professor and department chair at Western and also was in charge of running the university planetarium.

“Les loved teaching and working with students.   He also loved Bellingham and was very involved in the things that make a community a great place to live.  He saw the planetarium being important to the community and to younger students.  For me, giving this gift was the appropriate and right thing to do for him and the area he loved,” said Harriet Spanel.

The new projection system, in the planetarium on the third floor of Haggard Hall, contains the most comprehensive astronomical data set ever assembled, including from the American Museum of Natural History and NASA. The new $350,000 digital projector system can project a spectacular array of night skies, stars, planets and constellations as well as stunning 3-D high-resolution images and video onto the planetarium dome.

Plans are to expand the planetarium’s academic use to more students on campus, including the sciences but other subject areas as well in the arts and humanities. Planetarium access also will be significantly expanded to the public and to students in local K-12 schools.

“The planetarium, with this upgrade, is poised to become a significant educational tool within the physics and astronomy curricula here at WWU, as well as computer science, design, environmental science, biology and geology – anywhere that advanced visualization tools play a role. Perhaps as significant is the role the planetarium can play in connecting WWU to the broader community via outreach to groups, entertaining and educational content for the general public, and partnership with local school districts to provide science curriculum enrichment activities,”  said Brad Johnson, chair of Western’s Department of Physics & Astronomy.

Harriet Spanel’s gifts to the university for the planetarium will total $500,000, which includes purchase of the new projector system and a separate $150,000 estate gift, to add to the existing Les and Harriet Spanel Planetarium endowment that supports ongoing planetarium operations.

Harriet Spanel, who lives in Bellingham, served in the 40th Legislative District, which included San Juan, northwestern Skagit and southwestern Whatcom counties. First elected to the state House of Representatives in 1987, she served three terms. She was elected to the state Senate in 1993 and served four terms until 2009. A longtime activist in local and state issues, she is involved with a wide variety of local and regional civic organizations.

The Digistar 5 digital projection system is comprised of advanced computer (server) hardware and software integrated with a high-contrast high-resolution projector. The Digistar 5 is a new conceptual framework for planetarium operations; the system consists of a very large fully 3-D database of objects, images of which are rendered by the computers in real time to be viewed from a movable fixed point. This makes the content fully interactive on the planetarium dome – it is not a simple 2-D projection of a flat image. If the position of the viewer changes, the relative position and brightness of all the 3-D information contained in the image is changed and a new projection rendered.

The system has data for stars, planets, galaxies, as well as full high-resolution graphics for the surfaces of other planets, full databases for terrestrial information (topography, geography, features such as wildlife, sea-surface heights, ice fields, etc.) available to render in real time for projection.

The system can also project full-dome high-resolution video, and plans are to purchase or lease many entertaining and educational shows that will be available to students and the general public. The Spanel endowment will help make some of these purchases possible, and additional funds are being sought to enable the planetarium to bring new shows to the community more frequently. To make a tax-deductible gift, go to the Western Washington University Foundation web page and be sure to note gift for “Spanel Planetarium fund”:  http://www.foundation.wwu.edu/waystogive.html.

Monday, April 7, 2014 - 10:35am