Launceston Planetarium home to far more than stargazing

It took more than 10 years of proposals for Launceston to finally have its own planetarium.

A Hobart-based projector and a six metre temporary dome were sent to the Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery for a two year loan after it was established briefly in the former State Library Building.

So on January 30 in 1968, the Launceston Planetarium opened and later in the year, the temporary loan became indefinite.

Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery collections and research manager Martin George said it became Tasmania’s only planetarium with support from the state’s capital.

“Hobart lost its planetarium to Launceston.”

But why have one in the first place?

Mr George said they serve two main purposes – to educate and entertain – as there was increasingly more interest in the universe.

Although in the United States and Russia, astronauts would use also planetariums to learn more about navigation in space using astronomy, he said.

The ability to access information easily about astronomy and the captivating images which could be pinged back to Earth from distant satellites meant people could engage with the universe in ways they never could before, he said.

“Australia is in the process of establishing its own national space agency … and that’s something Australia can do very well with expertise in both astronomy and the space industry,” Mr George said.

Staff were often the first to receive enquiries about all things, including when a full moon will be rising to help organise a wedding.

 “On the other end of the scale, we get more serious legal inquiries that are connected with the light levels falling on a scene,” Mr George said.

“In other words, could a person have been recognised in the twilight, was there enough light on a person’s face that they could be recognised from 30 metres away?”

That was where astronomy fit in.

Mr George has been called to give evidence as an expert witness in his roles as an astronomer and a physicist.

He has had to judge how much natural and man-made light would have fallen on the scene at any given time.

“We have to take into account the brightness of the moon, the brightness of the twilight sky, the angle of observation and so on.

“The amount of light falling onto a scene is very significant part of the evidence that is presented in court.”

Astronomy shouldn’t be underestimated, as it was recently used to detect a possible new chamber in the Great Pyramid in Egypt, he said.

“After all, the universe is the biggest laboratory we’ve got.”

The Launceston Planetarium marks 50 years of helping Tasmanians to discover their universe on January 30.

“We’re very excited,” Mr George said.

If it was a clear day, he hoped they could set up some special telescopes so people could observe the sun.

“It can be damaging unless you know what you’re doing.”

There will be talks, tours and opportunities to explore around the planetarium, although a complete itinerary was yet to be decided upon.

It timed in well with a total eclipse of the moon the night after the planetarium’s anniversary, close to midnight.

Known as a ‘blood moon’ for its dull copper sheen, the lunar eclipse occurs when the Earth’s shadow blocks light from the sun reflecting off the moon.

It would be one of two total eclipses of the moon in 2018.

The second eclipse would occur just before sunrise on July 28.

He wanted to clear up any misconceptions about eclipses being dangerous.

An eclipse of the moon was completely safe to watch, but people shouldn’t look at the sun during a solar eclipse – which Tasmanian wouldn’t witness a full solar eclipse until 2131, he said.

One of the most significant astronomical events would also be in July, but spread over a couple of weeks.

Five planets – Mercury, Venus, Jupiter, Saturn and Mars from west to east - would be visible to the naked eye. 

“A great sight in the sky.”

2018 is an auspicious anniversary year as it also marks the 50th year since Apollo 8.

The lesser known of the Apollo missions, it was the first time people went into orbit around the moon before returning safely.

“The great significance of that was this was the first time people had been anywhere near the moon,” Mr George said.

“Up until that time nobody had been any more than what we call low earth orbit, which is just a few hundred kilometres up.

“Suddenly we had three people who were now nearly 400,000 kilometres away from home and they were right up, next to the moon.”

It was during the Cold War when the then Soviet Union and United States were locked in the Space Race.

Mr George was glued to the radio all through the Apollo missions because of his fascination space.

“Any radio station that had any information about what was going on, how the astronaunts were going, whether everything was going ok … that’s the kind of thing I always loved to listen to.”

He remembered listening to news about Apollo 13, ill-fated third planned lunar landing mission which suffered an explosion

“I can remember that day, the very moment when I heard on a commercial radio station in Hobart ‘Trouble onboard Apollo 13’. I thought ‘what! What’s happened’ and I was glued even more.”

Apollo 8, which did not have the capabilities to land on the moon, was part of the acceleration of the United States’ space program, which led to Apollo 11 a year later.

Both Apollo missions featured in part of the planetarium’s program called ‘The Dawn of the Space Age’, beginning with the first satellite launch in 1957 by the Soviet Union.

The 50th anniversaries for different Apollo missions were approaching, and one mission anniversary intrigued Mr George – 2022 – the last time we had people on the moon.

“It will be probably be even more interesting to discuss why we didn’t go back.”

While the moon might not be a target for space missions, in March, a satellite called TESS will be launched to study stars all across sky to try and find other planets.

“I see the future of the planetarium industry as very bright because few young people are interested in getting into science.”

While that might appear to be counter-intuitive, he said planetariums were often the first place budding scientists recalled being inspired to pursue their field.