By Nick Strobel
The Bakersfield College Planetarium upgrade project was finished at the end of May 2006. This article describes the history of the project and the reasoning for the decision to go with a Goto Chronos and Spitz SciDome.
The installation of the seats by American Seating at the end of May 2006 marked the completion of the completion of remodel of the Bakersfield College Planetarium. We went from a 7.3-meter (24-foot) planetarium that had served Kern County in California for over 40 years to an expanded and modernized 11-meter (36-foot) planetarium that will serve Kern County for many more years to come.
Planning for a new planetarium began soon after I came to Bakersfield College in 1996 and I investigated simply refurbishing the Spitz A3P that had been installed in 1962 and adding some sort of automation to it. In 2000 I began having lunch meetings with some professors in my department and the Math Department who were wanting to build a science center. One of professors mentioned the idea to our college president at the time. Sometime during that year the college president's spouse visited the Downing Planetarium a couple of hours north of us in Fresno and came home really excited, so our project moved up the college priority list. The recently hired Director of Institutional Development began meeting with our group in late 2000. Our dream was to build a science center on campus with a new planetarium as the centerpiece and earth science exhibits surrounding it. One of the board of trustees members had been chief assistant to our long-time congressional representative, Bill Thomas, and approached Thomas about getting an earmark for the project.
In January 2002 while still on winter break at my parents place in Oregon, I received a phone call from my excited dean about news of a congressional earmark to the tune of one million dollars for the project. Well, that was very good news to share with my family! That also put the science center planning into a higher gear. We visited other planetariums and science centers to find out what worked well and what did not. We were planning on using the congressional earmark as a starting point for a nearly $9 million science center that was still at least five years (and probably closer to ten years) into the future. Something would need to be done with the current planetarium in the meantime because some systems would need replacing before then and also we wanted to give the public a hint of what was possible with a newer facility. In late 2002 the team decided to use approximately $55,000 of the earmark to change the old Spitz lumiline cove lighting system to a LED system, add an audio system and A3P automation all from East Coast Control Systems. The LED and audio system (with some augmentation) would be transferred to the new planetarium. A science center brochure and video were created and plans were underway for focus groups and hiring of a science center director. I wrote a white paper on why a science center was needed in Kern County both for the economic reasons why it would be beneficial as well as why it was needed for our educational system. If you would like a copy of the white paper, just send me an email!
In summer 2003 the college budget situation was pretty grim because of the sour California economy and the college administration pulled back on the science center. The other faculty members and I of the science center were informed of this decision in the first couple of weeks of the fall semester. What a blow! It was decided that the rest of the earmark would be used to upgrade the current planetarium—approximately $750,000 remaining after other equipment had been purchased, faculty release time, administrator salaries and consulting fees had been paid for the science center project. The rest of the faculty on the science center team pulled out of the project since it was just a planetarium job now. For the next year or so I got quotes from a number of vendors on equipment costs as I tried to figure out how I would upgrade the old planetarium with the remaining funds for the equipment. Fortunately, I wouldn't have to use the earmark funds for building demolition and construction. That would come from a local bond recently passed by the Kern County citizens. However, I would still have to come up with some idea of how to modify the current space to give the architect something to work with. By late May 2004 I had developed the specifications list that would be used in calls for bids on the equipment. Bids were received by June 28, 2004.
I wanted an optical-mechanical star projector for the beautiful, crisp star field and an all-dome video system using a single projector for the seamless image all under a larger dome than before. For the optical-mechanical star projector I went with the Chronos from Goto. I first saw the Chronos at IPS 2002 in Wichita. I wanted to see it in action at a real installation and talk to a real user, instead of a salesman (no offense meant Ken Miller), so I packed my bag for a trip to Young Harris College in Georgia in the summer of 2003 where Kent Montgomery was happy to show off his year-old machine. I also considered the Zeiss ZKP-3 projector and took a trip down to Victor Valley College before Scott Bryan retired in 2001. Both projectors are very nice machines and both Kent and Scott were pleased with their projectors.
There were two factors that favored the Chronos over the ZKP-3 in the end. The first significant factor was the Chronos' digital control of the planets that was tried and true in a real installation. At the time of the bidding (end of June 2004), the Zeiss ZKP-4 with digital planet control had not come out or would not be ready to install at the time given in our original timeline. The second significant factor was that the cost of the Chronos was lower than the Zeiss ZKP-3/4 with the features we wanted. An extra bonus is that the star field from the Chronos was just as crisp as from the ZKP-3 as star measurements on the dome at several installations showed, but star sizes was not a criterion in picking one machine over the other.
For the all-dome video system, I wanted a single projector system that would work for a 36-foot dome. The system had to enable viewers to fly through the solar system, galaxy, and beyond using a simple input device like a computer mouse or joystick. While the multi-projector all-dome video systems are quite impressive, they are also beyond the budget of a small planetarium to purchase and paying qualified staff to maintain the hardware. Also, I have been to major planetariums with huge budgets & staff running multi-projector all-dome video systems and I could still unevenness in the dome image—one projector would have a grayer black than the one next to it, the planet image would shift as the planet moved from one projector to the next, etc. If the "big guys" could not even get that right, I had no hope of being able to do it right with a single person working only 20% of his job at the Planetarium and no training in aligning projectors, edge-blending, etc. The two single projector systems that I had seen in action were the Evans and Sutherland Digistar 3 Junior (now "3SP") and the Spitz SciDome. The Digistar 3 Junior is for domes up to 9.1 meters (30 feet) so that left the Spitz SciDome that could project a bright enough image for domes up to 12.2 meters (40 feet). The SciDome uses a special version of Imaginova's Starry Night for display onto a hemispherical surface (instead of a flat 4x3 aspect ratio computer screen). Starry Night Dome has a very intuitive interface like the computer desktop version with some special manual star projector like controls. When the SciDome is being used, I lower the Chronos into the pit.
East Coast Control Systems upgraded the LED cove lighting system for a larger dome and installed a Dolby 5.1 audio system that incorporates the speakers already purchased for the previous mini-upgrade. I decided to get the Spitz ATM4 automation system to control the Chronos, SciDome, cove lights and audio system. I had to pay a hefty fee for the integration of the Chronos with the ATM4. In conjuction with the ATM4 I got the Spitz Nomad remote control unit so I can control most of the show from up front. That left the seating. I wanted individual seats all facing the same direction and all comfortably under the dome so even the people on the outer edge would have a good view. I went with The American Seating Company because they had a special pricing arrangement with the state of California and the seats are comfortable. The seventy-two seats are the Stellar Model 35-306A (see the figure below).
The remodeling of the surrounding building took a lot longer than originally planned. We eventually went out for bid on the remodel in May of 2005 (a year after the equipment bids). The main reason for the delay was the super-charged housing construction boom in California. The size of the construction project was too small for the contractors to want to put up with all of the very length list of regulations required of a California educational institution project. We might have had an easier time if the project was at least $10 million, but at an expected less than $1 million, the extra cost of compliance & verification procedures for a state educational institution would be too great a percentage of the total cost. Strange sort of economic logic, but there you have it! The final bid for the building remodel came in at around $1.2 million. Yes, "bid" is singular. The college district's administration decided to go with the single bid because it was unlikely that the situation would be better a year later and it would probably cost even more. Demolition and asbestos abatement began the first week of June 2005 and enough was finished by mid-March 2006 for the installation of the Spitz 11-meter (36-foot) powder-coated premium-seam dome.
The diagram below shows the floorplan of the Planetarium. The dashed circle is the 11-meter (36-foot) dome spring line. The front of the Planetarium is at the bottom (facing south). People enter through double-doors at the northeast corner. The double-doors cannot be unlocked—a key must always be used to open the doors so the console operator does not have to worry about remembering to lock the door after the room is darkened to prevent stragglers from barging in and ruining everyone else's dark adaptation. The console operator is not directly under the dome in the north but one can still see the south half of the dome sufficiently well from the console area to work on the shows from there.
Since this drawing was made, I decided to remove the southern most rounded edge and square it off at the thick solid straight black line in the picture. Along that straight stretch is a white board that I have hidden behind a dark, navy blue curtain.
Now something that is probably controversial is how I display the constellations as part of my overall show. Instead of superimposing a picture of the character or object on the appropriate stars on the dome, I display the picture on a couple of large monitors just below the spingline while I slowly outline where the picture would be among the stars. I do this for a couple of reasons: 1) it provides a more realistic "star-gazing experience"—at night the pictures do not appear up in the sky and one has to make a mental transfer from a picture in a book to the sky; and 2) the pictures that come with both the Chronos and Starry Night Dome are the classical, ornate Ptolemaic pictures that I have a hard time distinguishing the parts of some and an even harder time getting the picture to match the star patterns [yes, I could create my own for the Chronos but I do not for reason (1)]. In other constellation tours I have experienced at other planetariums, the audience members ooh and aah when the picture appears on the dome's stars but I believe that's it. In my constellation tour a more permanent mental connection is made for the audience because they have to make a mental effort to place the picture onto the sky. For the constellations, people are very willing to make the effort! More often than not, I will have people exclaim out loud "Oh, now I see it!" Of course, even better would be to give people starcharts with red flashlights and go on a tour of the sky. That would work if I had a lot more time with the sky tour and it was the entire show.
I am currently creating a solar system tour using Starry Night Dome to travel among the planets. I will write about how to get Starry Night Dome to do that without it doing all of the crazy coordinate transformations SND is want to do in a future article. I just need to record the narration. I am also basking in the glow of a very successful run of Christmas shows that had a live portion with the Chronos star field and a recorded portion with Lochness Productions' "Season of Light" on the SciDome. Both portions were well-received by the public, so my thanks to Goto & Spitz and the Petersens for making the planetarium look good! I will close with a couple of pictures of the equipment. The first is yours truly next to the Chronos and the last is a quick-and-dirty panoramic image of the equipment plus seating.
(Select image to view a larger version)
last updated: April 4, 2008
document author: Nick Strobel