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State-of-the-art planetarium opens at North Medford High

Robert Black, planetarium director and astronomy teacher at North Medford High School, demonstrates features of the school’s newly renovated planetarium. [Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune]

On the eve of Thanksgiving break, after students departed North Medford High School, astronomy instructor Robert Black found himself stargazing and pondering some profound questions.

“There’s something about a starry night that triggers a certain curiosity and wonder,” Black said. “Could we be alone in the universe? Where did it all begin? How is it going to end?”

As he made those comments Tuesday, Black was speaking not from an open field far away from Medford’s bright city lights, but beneath images of the galaxy projected onto the dome of the high school planetarium, which recently reopened after a significant renovation and upgrade. The general public will be invited to see it on a date yet to be announced.

“It was lacking in a tiny way, and it’s adding so much more,” said Dave Bloomsness, who, as a member of Southern Oregon Skywatchers, got a preview of the space this week. “It’s definitely a good upgrade. A lot of people in the community are going to benefit from it, so I think it was definitely worth the time and effort and cost.”

North Medford High School is the only high school in the state with a planetarium, and it is one of only two Oregon educational institutions to have one, according to Black. Mt. Hood and Chemeketa community colleges built similar structures. North’s planetarium opened in 1967, the same year as the school’s founding, with some grant contributions from the NASA Apollo Program.

For years, the planetarium took in students from all over the district, from North to Abraham Lincoln Elementary. But it showed some wear and tear.

“The planetarium was like an old house that needed to be cleaned up,” Black said.

He pointed to a 55-year-old “director’s console,” resembling an Apollo lander, that was responsible for much of the planetarium’s operation.

“It was a neat system, but it had just expired,” Black said.

On Feb. 3, 2022, the Medford School Board unanimously approved a sole source procurement contract, ordering the $205,800 in renovation and upgrades to be done. That work was completed by Evans & Sutherland and Spitz Incorporated. The two companies merged in 2006, with E&S producing hardware and software to create realistic visual images for digital theaters and Spitz specializing in planetarium theaters and projection domes.

“The No. 1 thing I liked about them was that they’re American, and they have a stellar reputation with service,” Black said.

The dome feature is the eye-catching one — literally — for anyone who sets foot inside of North’s planetarium. Within seconds, it can call up any number of videos and images related to space, from the exact sunrise and sunset on a specific day to the Orion and Aquarius constellations. It also can simulate Orion, the no-crew space capsule heading to the moon.

“You never could have done that” in the old planetarium, Bloomsness said. “The graphics are amazing. It’s almost like you’re right there.”

Black is aware of how the planetarium’s new features will impact interested stargazers.

“They can say, ‘We saw that in the planetarium,’” he said. “I want to slip in good fun; I want to get them excited.”

Tanner James, a North Medford High School junior, stands out among his peers as one of the few able to operate the system, which with Digistar 7 software bills itself as one of the most advanced planetariums anywhere.

“It’s definitely a very cool program,” James said. “I find it very easy to cling to.”

For the North student, who is part of the school’s astronomy club, when the planetarium lights go down, it is like going to a movie theater “to watch an amazing show.”

“It is a pleasantly, awe-inspiring deal,” James said, allowing him and others to “observe the grand scale of the universe in a fantastic way.”

The advancements made to the North Medford High School planetarium are not lost on James, who first saw the older facility when he was in first grade.

“It’s been a little while,” James said. “I will say, the new Digistar system is definitely superior to what we had before.”

Black is excited for what can be offered by a revamped planetarium, complete with not only the latest technology, but reupholstered circular seats. Cardboard cutouts of figures, both fictional and real, like Captain Kirk and Neil deGrasse Tyson, offer a little inspiration to stargazers, as well.

“This will live on,” Black said, referring to the planetarium.

He went on to say that such spaces “make memories every day,” which he heard from the carpenters and electricians who made the planetarium possible.

“So this is one of those pillars in the community,” Black said.

Reach reporter Kevin Opsahl at 541-776-4476 or kopsahl@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @KevJourno.