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Director Thomas Willmitch uses a new digital control system in the refurbished Illinois State University planetarium, which also features new stadium seating.

NORMAL — Thomas Willmitch isn't Captain Kirk or Captain Picard. He is the head of the Illinois State University Planetarium.

But Willmitch says sitting at the control panel in the refurbished planetarium is “like being on the bridge of the Enterprise.”

There are five computers controlling all the gizmos and Willmitch said he is still figuring it all out.

Visitors attending the “Season of Light” holiday program, which begins Friday night, will notice the difference right away if they've been to the planetarium before.

Gone is the circular bench seating, replaced by comfortable seats that all face the front but also lean back to better see the cosmos displayed across the ceiling.

With the old bench seating, about 90 people could fit with a mixture of adults and children. The new individual seats reduced the capacity to 61, but what was lost in capacity was gained in “state of the art” capabilities, said Willmitch.

Besides, “there was always a sweet spot” with in-the-round seating and some seats were roped off because they had a poor view, he explained.

Willmitch said his favorite things about the remodeled space is “being able to present the stars as never before.”

The star projector is a Spitz A3P, but Willmitch said it's more of a hybrid that has been “Frankensteined” with upgraded parts. It can project 23,054 stars and the new elevation and motor system “moves much faster than the old one and much more quietly.”

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Thomas Willmitch, Illinois State University planetarium director, uses new digital controls to manipulate the star projector, now mounted on a turntable decorated with zodiac signs.

There's also a new surround-sound system and full dome projection. The walls have been covered with fabric to improve acoustics. The star projector is now mounted on a rotating platform with laser-etched depictions of zodiac symbols.

When the projector rotates to move the viewer's perspective from north to south, “it doesn't feel like the projector is moving,” said Willmitch, “it feels like the room is moving.”

Being able to smoothly rotate the sky became necessary with the switch from seats that encircled the room to a forward-facing alignment. That was one of the challenges of the remodeling project.

“I was sitting on an overturned bucket while I was trying to figure this out,” said Willmitch.

Then, Mark Perkins of Free Fall Technologies in Michigan, who was working on the project, said, “I can do that for you” and came up with a custom turntable.

The new seating arrangement, more space at the front of the room and the addition of a smart board with internet capabilities also has made the planetarium more suitable for classes and other presentations, including musical programs. An ISU astronomy class meets regularly in the planetarium.

“That's the idea — to make it more versatile,” he said.

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A star projector projects an image of the Milky Way at the Illinois State University planetarium.

The planetarium sold out every show of the recent “Ghostly Tales Under the Stars,” in which storytellers from the Improv Mafia told spooky tales under a dome of stars.

The upcoming “Season of Light” will be shown in a full dome format, said Willmitch.

“It's our traditional holiday show that covers various cultures … and what they feared and celebrated around the winter solstice,” he explained.

This includes practices of the Romans, Norse, Celts and Hopi along with Christian and Jewish traditions and the origins and evolution of the Christmas tree and Santa Claus.

“There's a little bit of something for everyone,” said Willmitch.

The project also included upgraded wiring in the more than half-century old planetarium, located under the white dome at the eastern end of the Felmley Hall of Science Annex.

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Contact Lenore Sobota at (309) 820-3240. Follow her on Twitter: @Pg_Sobota

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Education Reporter

Education Reporter for The Pantagraph.

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