Astronomy Night: Stargazing Shows at Planetarium

In the cozy village and homely SUNY New Paltz campus, the sky is the limit at its monthly planetarium shows. 

Astronomy Nights, hosted at the John R. Kirk Planetarium, occur every first and third Thursday of each month. This tradition started in the fall of 2011 when the department of physics & astronomy wanted students and the New Paltz community to touch the sky and enjoy stargazing. In a form of outreach that focuses on astronomy, each viewing features a new topic, keeping the program dynamic. 

“The audience is anyone interested in astronomy,” said Raj Pandya, director of the planetarium, which is located in the Coykendall Science building. “Most of our audience is made up of students, faculty and staff associated with SUNY New Paltz.”

The range of people in attendance at the shows are often from children as young as seven years old, to senior citizens, with many guests actually being families who live in the area. 

“The turnout is very high, with every planetarium show ‘selling out’ of tickets. We seat 44 people per show with two shows per night,” Pandya said, “Audience members are encouraged to attend the observatory viewing after each show if the sky is clear.” 

The Smolen Observatory, located at the south side of campus, is the second portion of Astronomy Night. On clear nights, patrons can go and look at the sky in real time with no need for reserving tickets. Since it is open to the public, the observatory hosts hundreds of visitors each year. 

At the planetarium particularly, shows feature that night’s sky, with the directors of the program pointing out stars, constellations, planets, galaxies and other objects that may be visible, along with the mythology behind some of their names, as well as  current-event topics. 

“We sometimes also include flying through the Solar System, Milky Way Galaxy and the whole Universe using immersive software,” Pandya said. 

Though sounding rather elaborate, it typically takes just one person to run the planetarium, and another person to run the Observatory. Often, the department even hires students to conduct the shows. 

“Many of the presenters at the planetarium are students that have taken a course in planetarium operation,” Pandya said. These are typically astronomy majors and minors, but we have students from all backgrounds.” 

Putting a big emphasis on student participation is key for the department, as Pandya expressed.

“We would like to see more SUNY New Paltz students attend the shows to take advantage of the unique opportunities at our campus provides!”

Students will have the opportunity to do just that at a musically-driven show on Feb. 21 at either 6:30 p.m. or 7:30 p.m., in the planetarium. This Astronomy Night is special in that music faculty member Alex Peh and his piano students are going to be featuring a performance they recently did titled, “A Musical Refuge.” The performers were inspired to pair their musical composition with a visual background depicting the night sky and various celestial objects. 

“The show will feature live music by American Avant-Garde composer, Philip Glass and Arvo Part,” Pandya said. “The lush, cyclical patterns of Philip Glass’ Four Movements for Two Pianos’ and the tranquil refuge of Arvo Part’s ‘Spiegel im Spiegel’ will serve as the backdrop for exploring the wonder of the night sky.”

Tickets to the Planetarium shows are free, but need to be reserved at their website, www.newpaltz.edu/planetarium/shows, two days in advance.