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Stars come out at Deere planetarium

Dispatch/Argus Photo By John Greenwood

Mel Peterson, who graduated from Augustana College in 1953, has been director of the John Deere Planetarium at the college, since 1988. The planetarium opened in 1968.

ROCK ISLAND -- It's not too often people go outside, stop and look up.

The director of the John Deere Planetarium at Augustana College hopes his work can change that.

``Astronomy is part of the environment we live in,'' Mel Peterson said, sitting in one of the tilting, padded chairs beneath the planetarium's white dome. ``People are less aware of the sky than they used to be.''

The planetarium gives Mr. Peterson an opportunity to raise that awareness.

As director of the Rock Island facility since 1988, the professor is in charge of running educational and informational programs that give students and visitors a better understanding of how stars and planets, their movement and history, affect our lives.

With his white beard and laser pointer, Mr. Peterson cuts a figure reminiscent of Obi-wan Kenobe, Luke Skywalker's light-saber-toting mentor and guide to the force and the galaxy.

In a way, Mr. Peterson's mission is the same -- planting knowledge of the skies into young minds, and hoping they'll be inspired to build those introductory lessons into a knowledge that will call them not so much to defend, but explore, the space surrounding what we know to be our world.

The Quad-Cities' astronomical education began decades ago, when Carl Gamble of Moline founded the Popular Astronomy Club in 1936. He built the Sky Ridge Observatory on Coaltown Road and, for the first time, area stargazers had the opportunity to view actual, celestial objects using the observatory's 6-inch telescope.

Mr. Gamble willed the telescope to Augustana College, a move that inspired school officials to create an astrological studies facility. Financial support from Quad-Cities area business and industry, and donations from Augustana alumni made construction of the planetarium and observatory possible.

``When it was built, it was quite rare'' for a college that size, Mr. Peterson said, adding that construction was planned shortly after the Sputnik missions of the late 1950s and early 1960s, and the ensuing Soviet-U.S. space race made more government grants and funding available for such projects.

The planetarium opened in 1968 and was dedicated in 1969, the same year men walked on the moon for the first time.

Space exploration rekindled people's interest in the heavens, Mr. Peterson said. ``Space is something everyone has in common, a `universal' interest. It is an interest the planetarium helps feed.

``During major events like the Sojourner landing (on Mars) people call for information, where they can get it, how they can see more,'' Mr. Peterson said. ``In times like during this year's bypass of the Hale-Bopp comet, or recent lining up of the planets, we get more calls, asking how to see these phenomenon, and where in the sky to look.''

To see them in the real sky, Mr. Peterson usually advises people to get as far from the city as possible, to escape ``light pollution.

``Manmade, inefficient lights throw light up into the sky, instead of down where it's needed and useful,'' Dr. Peterson said. It makes it harder to see celestial objects.

With the benefit of complete, unpolluted darkness, Mr. Peterson said the planetarium puts on more than 100 free programs a year, many for pre-college-age students just starting to learn about astronomy.

``We do a pretty good job of replicating the sky,'' he said, surrounded by thousands of dollars of computerized equipment. ``You just can't do that in the classroom.''

While students of all ages are sitting under the man-made blanket of stars, state-of-the-art educational programs help put the heavens into perspective.

As an example, Mr. Peterson cited the recent Christmas program.

``Christmas is probably celebrated when it is because the Christians wanted to be celebrating at the same time the Romans were,'' he said. ``They had celebrations to mark the solstice (the point of year when the sun is lowest in the sky, in late December), even though they didn't really understand what it meant. The Druids used to build big bonfires at that time of year to chase the sun back into the sky, and of course, it worked,'' or so it seemed.

That's the kind of perspective simple stargazing can't provide.

The planetarium isn't just for educational purposes, Mr. Peterson said, noting that it hosted a wedding a few years ago. He said the bride and groom wanted to incorporate their astrological signs into the ceremony, so exchanged vows with the constellations of their signs overhead.

``It was actually quite dignified,'' Mr. Peterson said, smiled, adding that the facility is driven more by the science of astronomy than the superstition of astrology.

No matter who visits, or for what purpose, Mr. Peterson said his goal is to spark their interest in the heavens, an interest he's harbored since he was a Boy Scout, growing up in Moline.

``I hope we get some interest in looking at the sky and learning more about it. I sort of feel like I'm doing some good, getting an enthusiastic response from visitors.''

It's the endless possibilities of space he believes have held man's fascination with the sky over the centuries. ``We think we know so much, then we look at what we knew 20 years ago, and think, `How could we have been so dumb?'

``Every time we take on another project we find out there's so much more we don't know.''

-- By Marcy Norton (January 22, 1998)

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