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50 years in a starring role: UMD planetarium celebrates anniversary

Presenter Josh Wasniewski describes the key features of each of the planets in the solar system, including Mars, during a presentation at the Marshall W. Alworth Planetarium to Piedmont Elementary students recently. The planetarium, located on the UMD campus, celebrates its 50th anniversary on June 10. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com1 / 6
Students from Piedmont Elementary School look at exhibits about the stars in the hallway leading to the planetarium during a recent field trip at the University of Minnesota Duluth. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com2 / 6
Stars trail just as they do in the night sky in this time exposure taken while the planetarium projector simulated the Earth's rotation. The single star (at right) not showing a trail is Polaris, the North Star. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com3 / 6
Josh Wasniewski, a UMD senior majoring in physics, is one of the presenters at the Marshall Alworth Planetarium. What he enjoys most working at the planetarium "is the ability of the dome- software combination to bring us to worlds and locations only our eyes can reach these days." Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com4 / 6
Piedmont Elementary students look up with fascination at pictures of the planets during a recent presentation at the Marshall W. Alworth Planetarium. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com5 / 6
The Marshall W. Alworth Planetarium projector can simulate the starry night sky and Milky Way from almost anywhere on the planet. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com6 / 6

A wave of children's giggles bounced around the room during a Wednesday night astronomy show; the presenter had just displayed an image of a moon orbiting Jupiter that resembled "olive pizza."

Joshua Wasniewski, a student at the University of Minnesota Duluth, was the voice behind the pizza simile. He switched his studies to physics and astronomy about the same time he started working at the Marshall W. Alworth Planetarium. He is one in a long list of students who have helped keep the planetarium active since the facility opened its doors 50 years ago June 10.

The planetarium opened in June 1967 thanks to money Marshall W. Alworth donated in 1965. Alworth was the son of Marshall H. Alworth, who was involved in the mining and lumber industries of Duluth during the late 1800s and left behind an inheritance. Fifty years later, the family's donation has yielded a community of astronomers.

Six UMD students work at the planetarium, four of whom host public and private showings. Glenn Langhorst, a former planetarium director, said student presenters have proved vital to the livelihood of the facility for as long as he has been around, starting in 1976. The students meet every Monday to plan the week's showing, a task he said Wasniewski has taken to leading.

"I think it's one of the best educational opportunities the college students can have because you're able to hone your public speaking skills," Langhorst said. "You have to be able to handle all different kinds of questions, especially when you get younger school groups coming in."

The showing can serve as an effective outreach tool to get children interested in the sciences, said Marc Seigar, the planetarium director and associate dean of the Swenson College of Science and Engineering.

"If we can get them young, maybe they'll be science and engineering majors when they go off to college," Seigar said. "We like to spark some enthusiasm, I suppose."

The Marshall W. Alworth Planetarium at the University of Minnesota Duluth. Bob King / DNT

The planetarium is what drew Langhorst to attend UMD in 1975. He had already established an interest in astronomy before his high school physics class took a field trip from Moose Lake to the planetarium. He had not, however, established his post-high-school plans.

"It kind of cemented my plan as far as going to UMD for college," Langhorst said, "because I thought, 'It would be pretty neat to go to a college that had a planetarium on campus.'"

The spring semester of Langhorst's first year at UMD, he took a photograph of Comet West, thanks to the astro-photography skills he had picked up in high school, and showed it to the director of the planetarium at the time, Donald Jackson. Their conversation would spark the beginning of a friendship and Langhorst's many years of involvement at the planetarium.

He started hosting shows where he quickly became interested in teaching and changed his major to get a teaching degree, which he completed in 1980. Two years later Jackson would retire from his directorship position, and Langhorst would take his place until 1994.

But Langhorst wasn't the only student whose life took a turn after an introduction to Jackson and the planetarium. When Jackson invited an art student named Eric Norland to become a student staff member for the planetarium in 1974 to paint art displays, Norland agreed and became hooked on the night sky.

He grew up watching space missions, but it wasn't until Jackson introduced Norland to the night sky through a telescope that he began to discover his lifelong interest in astronomy. Before that, he said, he thought stars were just "pinholes in God's blanket," as his grandfather used to tell him.

"For a long time, that was my viewpoint," Norland said. "Now I know stars are distant suns. They're so far away that they're just specks of light. It's really wonderful to have a better perspective of this natural phenomena we're all a part of. It only encourages or enhances our perspective of life on the planet."

The Marshall W. Alworth Planetarium stood alone after it opened to the public in 1967. Photo courtesy of UMD

Norland is still active in Duluth's astronomy club, the Arrowhead Astronomical Society, which he and Langhorst helped start in 1979.

Despite its commitment to astronomy, the planetarium hasn't always been able to maintain a constant source of funding. The directorship position hasn't been funded since the 1990s, and for years was left without a clear source of money. In 2006, Howard Mooers became the first volunteer director.

The planetarium has seen a few upgrades over the years, but the most transformative occurred in 2011 under Mooers. Renovations included new seats, carpet, lighting, a sound system and a projector. A gift shop and museum were also added. When Seigar started directing the planetarium in 2015, he created a traveling planetarium to take around the community and to schools.

Seigar said the plan later this summer is to install a lift on the star projector to remedy the line of sight it blocks in a few of the auditorium's seats. The star projector, which projects the stars onto the screen as they are seen in the night sky on any given night, is what brings out the same reaction in everyone, Seigar said, whether they're 5 or 80.

"I think that appeals to people of all ages, well kids of all ages — because I think the inner child just comes out," he said.

Astronomy lovers will celebrate the planetarium's anniversary at a private event Saturday, but a weeklong open house will be free and open to the public this fall at a date yet to be determined.