WWU planetarium gets 3-D upgrade


Les Spanel planetarium at Western Washington University

Scenes from the universe are displayed at the dedication ceremony for the new state-of-the art digital projection system at Western Washington University's planetarium, the result of donations by Harriet Spanel in memory of her husband, the late Les Spanel, for whom the planetarium is now named. Les Spanel was a longtime physics professor and department chair at Western and also was in charge of running the university planetarium


BELLINGHAM - People who want to see the depths of the universe can get a glimpse at Western Washington University's recently upgraded planetarium.

The planetarium, on the third floor of Haggard Hall, has been outfitted with a new digital projection system that can project 3-D, high-resolution images and video, including stars, galaxies and surfaces of other planets.

There were plenty of "oohs and aahs" when the new system was unveiled at a ceremony Saturday, April 5, said Brad Johnson, chairman of Western's department of physics and astronomy.

"It surprises you. It's much more than visual," he said. "You feel that you're immersed in what you're seeing."

Unlike the previous 2-D projector, the new system's high-resolution, high-contrast images can be viewed from a moveable fixed point, allowing for an interactive experience.

"You can move around in the sky, literally," Johnson said.

The upgrades were made possible by donations from former state senator Harriet Spanel, including $350,000 for the projector and $150,000 toward an endowment to run the planetarium. Her husband, Les Spanel, was a physics professor and department chair and had been in charge of running the planetarium, which is now called the Dr. Leslie E. Spanel Planetarium.

The university would like to expand planetarium use for students outside of physics and astronomy, as well as the general community. The university is working with Bellingham School District to add a planetarium trip for fourth- and fifth-graders studying space science. And by the end of the academic year, the university hopes to offer immersive educational films open to the community.

"That's one of Les' dreams for the place," Johnson said. "He could see the potential for community involvement in a place like the planetarium."


For details about the Dr. Leslie E. Spanel Planetarium at Western Washington University, go to wwu.edu/depts/skywise.

Reach Zoe Fraley at 360-756-2803 or zoe.fraley@bellinghamherald.com.

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