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Port Hope writer runs his own planetarium

Port Hope

Portable Planetarium

Article written by Cecilia Nasmith of Northumberland Today

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Port Hope science writer Peter MacMahon, who has a special passion for astronomy, has taken his act on the road with a portable planetarium.

A number of Cobourg District Collegiate Institute East teachers got a special preview last week, when it was set up in the school’s drama room over lunch period.

The sign McMahon put on the giant inflatable dome said Peterborough Planetarium but, because it is portable, it was actually the Cobourg Planetarium that day.

And the show inside, as McMahon puts it, it’s just the kind of interactive, animated planetarium exhibit he would have liked to see as a kid, but the technology wasn’t there at the time.

McMahon had not been impressed with the static nature of other portable planetariums he has seen, where the projector is not much more than a plastic can with a pinhole and a lightbulb inside. He and kindred spirit Rick Stankiewicz had a feeling they could do better, so they compared notes and went into business.

Their show is computerized through a parabolic projector for an animated experience of time-lapse cycles and visiting anywhere in the universe through zooming in, zooming out and zooming around.

It all happens in an inflatable room you enter through an inflated tunnel. The dome is 16 ft. across and about 11 ft. high, and easily seats about 30.

Together with the right equipment, McMahon and his partner offer a knowledgeable and enthusiastic presentation.

For local audiences, the opening display projected on the inside of the dome is a scene of the Peterborough Lift Locks in the winter, a panoramic photograph that took an hour or two to film and probably seven hours to put into the computer.

They can cycle through the seasons at the Lift Locks. And they have many other displays, including the cycle of the seasons in the heavens, a time-lapse scene of the aurora borealis, the panorama of the living sky, or maybe some earthbound scenes like a BC heritage park, Jasper National Park or the top of Mt. Everest. Where else could you cycle through a sunset as seen from Mt. Everest, then watch the stars and planets come out over the surrounding peaks.

Visitors can submit requests or enjoy a program that McMahon or Stankiewicz has planned. You might see Jupiter and its 70 moons orbiting around it (like a mini-solar system within a solar system) or Saturn and its rings (which are really just trillions of particles of rock and ice).

The geographic features of Mars include chasms that dwarf the Grand Canyon and Mt. Olympus which, at thrice the size of Mt. Everest, is the biggest mountain known to exist.

A month goes by in a minute when you see a time-lapse of the earth’s orbit complete with the phases of the moon.

You can sit secure in the dome and see meteor showers overhead, watch the constellations revolving around the North Star or trace the path of a comet (which, though they are only the size of a city, can have tails that are a million kilometres long). Swoop and whirl on a trip through some of the star clusters that, though visible to us, are light years away.

McMahon can even offer an astronaut’s-eye view of what it’s like to be launched into space and a tour of the international space station, with special attention to the parts built by Canada.

“I have been (astronaut) Chris Hadfield’s science-experiment biographer, so I have a lot of information there. They are learning everything from how to make better mayonnaise to saving people’s lives,” McMahon said.

In spite of the magic they create, the entire works (when collapsed) fit easily into McMahon’s Chevy Cobalt while still leaving room for a passenger.

“This is something I have dreamed of being able to offer in Northumberland and the Kawarthas for 10 years, since we knew the technology was available,” he said.

McMahon and his partner have seen a tremendous response to their presentations, and bookings at classrooms, camps and conferences throughout central Ontario.

The planetarium can be booked at $550 plus HST for a full day, which is the lowest cost they know of for a portable planetarium of this quality.

“This is the sort of thing you would normally have to travel to a large science centre to experience, and now it can be down the hall from wherever you are,” he said.

McMahon and his partner can also create made-to-order lessons in areas such as history, the arts, environmental studies or even current events like the recent meteorite landing in Russia.

Or, because the planetarium is there for the day, they can do a lesson on space for one grade level in the morning and for another grade level in the afternoon.

But it’s not just for students. They get the occasional public booking, and one is taking place at Peterborough’s Lansdowne Place Mall during March break, on March 14 and 15, with free admission. McMahon invites everyone to come see the planetarium that might be coming soon to a classroom near you.

Or learn more about it by visiting www.peterboroughplanetarium.com  .



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