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New CCBC planetarium echoes Banneker's vision

Facility can show 88 constellations, show full-dome films

The ancient Greeks and Romans saw the stars Zeta Orionis, Epsilon Orionis and Delta Orionis as the belt of a hunter Orion, in battle against a giant bull, explained the astronomy instructor at the new Benjamin Banneker Planetarium in Catonsville. Native Americans saw those same stars as a quiver of arrows across the back of a warrior believed to be the protector of his people.

As she led the presentation about the various views of the stars held by different cultures on a recent Saturday morning, Stephanie Caravello-Hibbert toggled between images of Native American warriors on the darkened overhead screen.

"These kinds of stories helped people to feel someone was protecting them from harm," she said.

The presentation was part of "Ancient Legends," an original multimedia show at the state-of-the-art planetarium on the Catonsville campus of the Community College of Baltimore County. It is part of an ongoing series at the Banneker Planetarium and is one of many examples of the facility's efforts to make astronomy accessible, in part by exploring ways in which it interweaves with history, anthropology, the arts and other fields.

"We're better than ever at taking what's up there in the skies and bringing it down to earth," Caravello-Hibbert said.

The planetarium, which was dedicated 18 months ago and recently opened to the public, is located in the Math and Sciences Hall on the South Rolling Road campus. It replaces the original Banneker Planetarium, which dates to the 1970s.

The facility is named for Benjamin Banneker, a free black man and self-taught scientist who lived in neighboring Oella and wrote a series of almanacs during the 1790s. Monthly Friday evening programs for adults are now offered in addition to the Saturday morning programs for children. The programs are designed to encourage lifelong science education, and they use Banneker's unique legacy to promote broader interest in STEM education.

The new facility exemplifies a wave of change taking place across the country as planetariums forsake the optical-mechanical technology of a half-century ago and roar into the digital age. Like other high-quality planetariums in the area, including those at the Maryland Science Center, Towson University and the Robinson Nature Center in Columbia, Banneker has left behind "star-ball" projectors like the one at the original Banneker.

"Those basically consisted of a metal ball with lights inside and pinholes for each star," said David Ludwikoski, the planetarium's director and associate professor of astronomy at CCBC.

The new Banneker boasts a Spitz SciDome XD digital projector that can display 88 constellations on a seamless 30-foot dome. The old Banneker showed four. Designed by the Spitz Inc., a Pennsylvania-based planetarium maker, the projector allows operators to zoom in and out of scenes on remote planets and moons, show past and future starscapes, build and add sounds, alter the duration of shots, and cross-cut among locations and eras.

An additional attraction at CCBC is that the shows are free.

"We want as many people as possible to know about this public resource," Ludwikoski said.

The planetarium seems to suits its namesake, a naturalist and astronomer who lived on a farm just four miles from Catonsville more than 200 years ago. Born in 1731 to a free African-American mother and a father who was a freed slave, the young Banneker proved himself a brilliant student when neighbors made their books and libraries available to him. He eventually became renowned as a mathematician, surveyor and scholar of the stars.

Years later, after making astronomical calculations that predicted solar and lunar eclipses, he included them in his series of widely read almanacs.

"This was a brilliant man who was highly educated at a time when most African-Americans had to live as slaves, never mind learning about the stars and educating the public about them," Ludwikoski said. "He's somebody local people should know about."

When the college found the funding to renovate its math and science building, Ludwikoski and others managed to get more than $200,000 earmarked for the planetarium, which opened in late 2015.

Ludwikoski and Caravello-Hibbert spent several months mastering the new projector, then inaugurated the series of free public shows.

They began last fall, with Friday nights geared toward the general public and Saturday mornings toward children and families in the 70-seat auditorium.

Banneker might well have enjoyed one recent Friday presentation when Ludwikoski entertained more than 40 people with a semi-original presentation on eclipses.

In honor of the total solar eclipse that will be visible across parts of the U.S. this August, he debuted a film that explored what the event will look like from space and from various places on Earth.

He also introduced a full-dome show co-created by Spitz Creative Media, "Solar Superstorms," that vividly illustrates the inner workings of the sun, including "the tangle of magnetic fields and superhot plasma that vent the sun's rage in dramatic flares [and] violent solar tornadoes."

On March 10, he'll screen a film that shows the sky as it looked on April 18, 1775, when Paul Revere made his legendary "Midnight Ride," giving visitors a chance to determine for themselves whether there was a full moon during the event, as historians have reported.

Caravello-Hibbert's recent show, part of the children's series, opened with a panorama of the sky above campus, then featured the sun crossing that sky and disappearing, revealing a variety of shapes in the stars.

One was the Big Dipper, part of the constellation known to the ancient Romans as Ursa Major, the Great Bear, and to the Algonquins as the mythic hero Gitchi Odjig, the Great Fisher.

"We use the stars to make legends about what's important to us," Caravello-Hibbert said.

When the lights came up, Marcus Thomson, 11, a fourth-grader from Baltimore County, was among those in the audience. He has long been interested in the constellations and came to the planetarium with his family.

He already knew quite a bit about Orion and other familiar sights in the northern sky, he said, but this was the first time he had learned about them from a Native American perspective.

He said he hoped to return for another show sometime.

"I just like looking at the stars," he said.

jonathan.pitts@baltsun.com

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