Mention Wisconsin to someone and their first thought might have something to do with cheese, bratwurst, or the Green Bay Packers. I’d suggest adding stargazing to the list after learning of some great resources during a recent trip to Milwaukee. I paid a visit to the Milwaukee Public Museum, where the The Daniel M. Soref National Geographic Dome Theater & Planetarium has just been upgraded to a Digistar 6 computer projection system.
Cool planetarium shows
I saw the museum’s planetarium show titled, “Did An Asteroid Really Kill the Dinosaurs?” It was a visually stunning show that left one feeling that T-Rex and the killer asteroid were actually in the room.
“We produced that, we wrote it, and put it up on the dome, and that’s because we had a big dinosaur exhibit,” explained Bob Bonadurer, director of the theater and planetarium, who added that they create many of their own original programs. He noted that the answer to the question in the show’s title is yes—for now.
“There’s lot of debate about volcanic eruptions possibly contributing to the death of the dinosaurs,” Bonadurer said. “Science always changes with new evidence, and we point that out at the end of the show.”
“Did An Asteroid Really Kill the Dinosaurs?” has since closed, but the planetarium is running two other astronomy-related shows along with its staple “Wisconsin Stargazing,” which looks at what’s up in the sky each month.
Bonadurer said its not all that common to find a planetarium that also has 2D and 3D movies.
“A lot of planetariums stand alone,” he noted. “Our planetarium is part of the big dome theater.”
The recent upgrade has brought even brighter, sharper resolution to the screen.
“With the astronomy software we’ll be able to take the audience on much more engaging trips throughout the cosmos,” Bonadurer said.
Stargazing in Wisconsin
Milwaukee and Wisconsin have active amateur astronomy communities. There are a half dozen astronomy clubs in the greater Milwaukee area, and the Astronomical League lists 14 affiliated clubs in the state.
“Those astronomy clubs are great to work with,” Bonadurer said. “They help us out with events such as eclipses, and, for example, the Mercury transit back in May.”
As with any big city, Milwaukee has problems with light pollution, but Bonadurer said there’s plenty of good stargazing to the north of town. Newport State Park, about 90 miles north-northeast of Green Bay, is a candidate for International Dark-Sky Park status with the International Dark-Sky Association.
“Like any metro area, we tell our planetarium audiences yes, take the drive, 40-50 miles, get away from the street lights,” Bonadurer said. “It’s a tall order, but do it because it’s worth it.”
“Planetarium skies are nice, but they obviously don’t hold a candle to the real sky,” he added. “We want people to get out there under the real sky.”
Total solar eclipse
Next August 21, when a total solar eclipse crosses the United States, Milwaukee will see the Sun obscured by just 85 percent. The Milwaukee Public Museum will offer programs to help people safely view the partial eclipse in town, and is also sponsoring a five-day eclipse road trip to get people into the totality.
“We’ve got our hotel rooms booked as a lot of planetariums or astronomers do,” Bonadurer said. “We’re usually on the leading edge of all this in getting the public excited.”
Bonadurer, who has seen four total eclipses of the Sun, will lead the tour, which will be able to take about 110 people to the eclipse.
“This will, I hope, reignite a little passion about eclipses in America, because it’s been a long time,” he said. “It’s the first one to sweep across America in 99 years, because for the one in ’79, only a small portion of America got to see it.”
Astronomy buffs visiting Wisconsin will also want to check out the historic Yerkes Observatory about 50 miles southwest of Milwaukee in Williams Bay, Wisconsin. The observatory, often called the birthplace of modern astrophysics, was founded by George Ellery Hale and has been the research home of Edwin Hubble and a veritable who’s who of astronomers. Check out our article about a visit to Yerkes during the 2012 Astronomical League Conference.
Bonadurer offers this advice to stargazers in Wisconsin and everywhere:
“Keep looking up, see that eclipse,” he suggests. “Get away from the street lights and enjoy this incredible universe.”
Podcast of our conversation with Bob Bonadurer: