PUBLISHED: 3:59 PM on Wednesday, September 14, 2005
Star light, star bright

Courtesy Photo
It's hard to be an astronomer in a rain forest, according to Marie Drake Planetarium volunteer Michael Orelove, but that hasn't stopped a small coterie of star watchers from trying to teach Juneau residents more about the sky above them.

On the first Tuesday and Wednesday of each month, the group hosts a free public show at the Planetarium, which is located in the Marie Drake Building, between Juneau-Douglas High School and Harborview Elementary School. Between 50 and 75 people usually gather at the site, which features a 30-foot domed ceiling that acts as a backdrop for the stars.

"We've got a star machine that can project what the stars look like from anyplace on earth at any time of the year," explained Orelove, who has been volunteering with the Friends of the Marie Drake Planetarium since the 1990s. "We start the program out by showing what the stars look like in Juneau on that particular day, and at the end of the program, we draw a raffle ticket, and the winner gets to pick a different spot from which to see the stars on his or her birthday."

"They usually choose someplace down south," he laughed. "It's not unusual to find ourselves looking up at a February night sky in Hawaii."

The Planetarium, which was built in 1967, used to be staffed by a teacher who taught astronomy to students in the Juneau School District in the 1960s and '70s. After budget cuts nixed the program in the 1980s, the room was used for school board meetings and storage, and as a computer classroom. "In the 1990s, a group of volunteers asked the school district if we could use the equipment to provide free shows to the public," said Orelove. "Since then, we've run programs for all ages, year-round."

On the first Tuesday of the month, the Planetarium hosts a half-hour show for young children, or "adults with short attention spans," according to Orelove. On Wednesday, the show is expanded to one hour. The subject matter is chosen by the group, and can feature any subject from rockets to spaceships, to hidden solar systems, to Alaska's auroras.

"The star machine is really only part of the show," said Orelove, who says that the Planetarium's volunteers also interact with the audience through exhibits, models and demonstrations. In October, the Big Dipper will take center stage at the Planetarium.

"People originally thought that the ninth planet was Pluto, but it's really just a big icy thing past Neptune," said Orelove. "At the New York Museum of National History's planetarium, they only list eight planets; they demoted Pluto. And now a bigger icy thing has been found past Pluto, so the question is 'does that make it the tenth planet, or is Pluto even considered a planet?'"

"As for the Big Dipper, did you know that one of the stars in the handle is actually a double star?" he asked. "That means that the Alaska state song, which starts with 'eight stars of gold on a field of blue' is wrong-it should say nine stars."

It is these types of issues that pique Orelove's interest, who says that he was first attracted to the subject of astronomy while living in Chicago. "I used to enjoy seeing the star shows at the Adler Planetarium, and when I heard that there was a resource like this in Juneau, my interest grew from there," he explained.

In addition to providing the free public shows, the Friends of the Marie Drake Planetarium are also willing to train others on the equipment so that they might also share the experience. "We always welcome new volunteers, especially teachers and other group leaders, like those with the Boy Scouts, who want to learn how to use the equipment," said Orelove. Volunteer training is held every Monday from 6-7 p.m. at the Planetarium, though they will be closed on Labor Day.

To learn more about the Planetarium, call Orelove at 586-3034 or attend any of the upcoming shows, which begin at 7 p.m.

"Living in Juneau, sometimes you have to come inside to see the stars," he laughed.