Star gazers take note: McMaster's planetarium re-opens

By Matt Terry, January 15, 2009

    McMaster's W.J. McCallion Planetarium re-opens after a major renovation.
For more than a year, the William J. McCallion Planetarium, which digitally projects a representation of the night sky onto its domed ceiling, has been shuttered while it undergoes a major renovation that includes new equipment, theatre-style seating and the latest in digital technology and computer software.

It has come a long way since the days of projecting the night sky onto a parachute, as it did in the early 1950s. The new software that has been installed not only allows audiences glimpses of basic sky features such as stars, planets and constellations, but takes them on a truly extra-terrestrial journey through and beyond our universe. New capabilities include viewing the night sky as it looked in the past or will look in the future, from both Earth and other planets, real-time simulation of celestial movements and the ability to show features like meteor showers or objects in the so-called Hubble Deep Field, which were beyond the capacity of previous Planetarium projectors.

"We used to begin a lot of presentations with 'imagine this in your mind,'" says Michael Reid, assistant professor in the Department of Physics & Astronomy. "Now we can show visitors anything and everything in the sky."

With these powerful new features, the Planetarium can be fully harnessed as an educational tool, both for the Department of Physics & Astronomy and the McMaster and Hamilton communities.

"There is only so much you can learn from a 2-D picture," says Reid. "With the new projector and software, students will be able to better understand the movements of the Sun, Moon, stars and planets." Since the software used with the projector is open-source and available free for download on the web, students can also supplement their studies at home.

With a capacity for 35 (plus two wheelchairs), the Planetarium is also a great entertainment facility and can be booked for private functions.

The Planetarium will offer public shows on such dramatic topics as "The Seven Ways a Black Hole Can Kill You" and "The Power of the Dark Side: How Dark Matter and Dark Energy Dominate Our Universe."

"The McCallion Planetarium has always been an important education and outreach tool for the University," says Reid. "As we enter 2009, the International Year of Astronomy, we hope that the fantastic new Planetarium will enable us to share with thousands of visitors the sense of wonder that astronomy invariably evokes."

The original planetarium projector was purchased in 1949 with money raised through public subscription and donations from the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada. In the early days, a war-surplus parachute was suspended from the ceiling and used as the planetarium dome. In 1954, the original projector found more permanent accommodation in a custom-designed room in what is now called the Burke Science Building, and was later donated to Mount Allison University. In 1992, the Ontario Science Centre, in cooperation with the London Children's Museum, donated a Spitz A3P projector to McMaster. With the recent facility upgrades, this projector was donated to Brock University, and replaced by the modern digital projector currently being used.

The planetarium is named after William J. McCallion, in recognition of his central role in the development of the facility at McMaster. It is estimated that he gave presentations to as many as 100,000 people during his time at the University, and also served as Director of Educational Services and Dean of the School of Adult Education while at McMaster.

The Planetarium's grand re-opening will be held January 15 and public shows will begin January 28. Tickets are $5 per person, available at the door, and shows start at 6:30 p.m., 7:45 p.m. and 9 p.m. Shows typically last an hour.

For more information, the public show schedule or for private bookings, please visit the William J. McCallion Planetarium's web site at, or call 905-525-9140, ext. 27777.