From Bay County to the stars, planetarium offers a universal experience

Mike Murray is an Astronomer & the Planetarium Manager at Delta College Planetarium, as well as a blogger, podcaster, National Parks guest lecturer, and jazz enthusiast. 

“No, I didn’t intend to go into Planetarium Management,” he said with a smile. “I was in jazz ensembles in college, playing sax, clarinet, and flute. (It kept my sanity amongst all the science and math classes!)”

We met in the middle of a polar vortex on a weekday morning, sitting in his office next to a round window looking out over the Saginaw River at the Delta College Planetarium in downtown Bay City. 

Murray received his undergraduate degree in Physics from Adams State University where he wrote and presented shows at Harry Zacheis Planetarium and Observatory before doing graduate-level research in infrared light in astrophysics at the University of Wyoming. 

“Infrared is invisible,” Murray said holding his hand up to his coffee mug. “We feel it as heat.” 

While at Adams State, he also managed the university’s planetarium by creating multi-media-oriented star shows and producing school programs. 

Michigan's Love of Space

Murray says that it's rare for a state to have so many planetariums: Michigan has 38. 

Only five planetariums existed in the United States before 1940 because of their enormous expense. In 1947, Armand Spitz created an inexpensive planetarium model and began marketing his Model A Planetarium for $500 in Pennsylvania. Universities, museums, and even King Farouk of Egypt began purchasing the models. 

“And then low and behold, guess what happened in the late 50s...the space race," says Murray. "Suddenly there was a huge priority on science education, and when the federal government was handing out grants for science education, planetariums were considered a part of that. In 10 years, you saw several hundred planetariums go up around the United States, many of which were right here centering around Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio and Michigan.” 

There are many well-developed astronomy and physics programs at colleges and universities across Michigan, many of which have their own planetarium. 

There are also several public societies and organizations for star-gazers. “The Sunset Astronomical Society is one. They serve the Mid-Michigan area here.” 

Meetings are held on the second Friday of each month at Delta College Planetarium. Its membership is diverse, and the society’s activities include observing sessions, annual public star parties, and friendly meetings. The topic of this month's meeting was "So You Got a Telescope for Christmas". 

“The Great Lakes Star Gaze is the biggest one [star party] in Michigan.” Tentatively scheduled this year for September 26-29 in Gladwin, Michigan, the organizer’s website states, “This is a star party for the astronomer who loves to observe and mingle with other astronomers. Some practical and interesting talks are scheduled to enhance your weekend experience.” 

Technology Puts Delta College Planetarium on the Map 

Mike Murray’s career spans several states and several decades. He was working as the production manager at the Clark Planetarium in Salt Lake City when it became the first planetarium to be equipped with the Digistar 3. 

“That's when the big shift happened," he says. "All the video production could go into a single system....everything became integrated into one video system and allowed them to explore a lot of other areas. Like music, art, culture...” 

Behind a dimly lit computer screen in a corner of the dome, Murray queues up the cosmos and “flies” us over to a cluster of stars. 

A 3-dimensional animation appears on screen; a child walking through several different environments. The Digistar 6 can project as full-dome photography and video. It feels like being inside a much smaller, much more inclusive IMAX theatre. 

That feeling is created through new technology: Delta College Planetarium in Bay City, Michigan is one of the first planetariums to make use of the new laser-phosphor projection technology, the Dome360 Theatre. 

“It has some similarities, especially to domed IMAX. IMAX is meant to be large in order to make it more immersive. Now in the dome it is even more immersive still because now you are surrounding the audience front to back not just large in one direction.” 

On this year’s schedule, Delta College Planetarium will be hosting a 50th Anniversary Party of the Apollo 11 landing, with other family-friendly programs to experience throughout the year. Check out Pink Floyd’s “The Dark Side of the Moon” playing on Saturday evenings now and through the end of April, a 45 minute multimedia show featuring music from the album set to computer visualizations, space, and special effects. 

The Delta College Planetarium will reignite your curiosity about space. If it doesn’t, Mike and his team at the planetarium will. 
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