Rock Bridge discusses future plans for planetarium

Tuesday, March 8, 2011 | 8:36 p.m. CST; updated 8:49 p.m. CST, Tuesday, March 8, 2011

COLUMBIA — Inside Rock Bridge High School is a 40-foot dome along with 15 image projectors, five computers and a constellation projector.

Together, they produce a "realistic simulation" of the night sky in mid-Missouri's only planetarium.

Right now, only students from Columbia Public Schools and surrounding districts are able to view the shows at the planetarium.

Next fall, that might change if the doors open to the public.

Giving access to the public would allow Rock Bridge to charge an entrance fee and use the proceeds to update the aging planetarium.

The 37-year-old dome seats about 65 and holds presentations several times each week.

Most of the equipment used in the shows are as old as the planetarium itself and are on their "last legs," according to interim planetarium director Melanie Knocke.

Knocke began running the shows in December and is working with high school administrators to create plans for an improved center.

The show has visual issues with the system that projects stars onto the dome. It creates a realistic but faint rendition of the night sky.

"One of the most critical aspects (of the show) is the star projector," Knocke said. "The stars need to be sharp."

Funding will be the biggest challenge once the scope of the improvements is determined. Knocke estimates that the changes to the planetarium could cost anywhere between $35,000 and $1.3 million.

Val Germann, a member of the Central Missouri Astronomical Association, agreed that opening the planetarium to the public would help raise the needed funds.

"There's always things they need and they can't get,"said Germann, who has been affiliated with the planetarium for 10 years.

Although Knocke said Rock Bridge is still in the research phase, she said she is still excited about the opportunities the updated planetarium can provide for kids.

"I try to capture their imagination so they remember they had a good time," she said. "Hopefully that will foster a future interest in science."

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