Donation allows planetarium attendees to explore

Erin Steinert holds the SCItouch planetarium controller.
Erin Steinert holds the SCItouch planetarium controller. Tri-City Herald

Imagine sitting at the Bechtel National Planetarium and directing where you explore, from moving in orbit around mars to touring the inside a human body.

Visitors to the planetarium on Columbia Basin College’s campus are getting the chance to interact with shows thanks to a $17,000 anonymous donation. The money allows the planetarium to purchase a SCItouch planetarium controller.

The device resembles a TV remote and allows the planetarium to be a more interactive experience.

Erin Steinert, the planetarium outreach specialist, said it creates a lot of possibilities they didn’t have before.

When staff start a show, they display an image of the sky surrounding the building. With a press of a button, Steinert advances the progress of time on the screen or move the sky so people can look at a particular section.

Other tools in the software allow her to identify constellations, stars and planets. She can point to a star and pull up a text box showing a description.

She can move the camera to an orbit outside of Mars and direct the pointer to landmarks on the surface of the red planet.

“These are some things we can do here at the console, but would be really cool to do anywhere in the audience,” Steinert said.

The remote works with the programmed shows, such as one where people match the constellations with their locations in the sky.

“We can hand the remote to someone and say, ‘Here. Can you find where this constellation goes?’ ” she said.

Planetarium staff are developing programs to incorporate the device, including a “choose your own adventure” show.

“Astronomy, overall, is a very difficult topic to wrap your brain around,” Steinert said. “We’re talking about such vast distances and sizes and some really abstract concepts. Being able to manipulate things for yourself ... helps to solidify some of these abstract concepts for people in astronomy.”

The college is looking at expanding the use of the planetarium outside of astronomy with a program called ZygoteBody. It allows people to explore a human body.

“You can zoom into a person’s skull and do dissections or look into the chambers of the heart,” Steinert said. “And how cool that would be for our anatomy classes and our biology classes to be able to hand them the remote and say, ‘Here, I want you to label all of the bones in the human hand.’ ”

The planetarium has hosted 77,000 visitors in the past four years, including people attending public shows, field trips, private events, college students and staff.

“Thankfully, the conversation has shifted a little bit. It used to be many more people saying, ‘Oh, I didn’t know we had a planetarium,’” Steinert said. “Now the conversation is more, ‘I know we have a planetarium. I just haven’t made my way over there yet.”

Cameron Probert: 509-582-1402, @cameroncprobert