Arlington Planetarium finally looks to reopen this fall with new director and modern projector | ARLnow

David M. Brown Planetarium (staff photo by Matt Blitz)

After being closed for nearly three years, the planetarium adjacent to Washington-Liberty High School wishes a star it reopens later this fall.

It was November 2019 when the David M. Brown Planetarium on N. Quincy Street closed to allow for the redesign of the adjacent Arlington Education Center in Washington-Liberty. It took longer than expected due to the pandemic, but this $38 million project is mostly complete.

With that done, the planetarium also reopens with some notable changes, including a new manager, a state-of-the-art projector, and the removal of a mural.

The goal is to start running programs again in early November, Friends of Arlington planetarium president Jennifer Lynn Bartlett told ARLnow.

The nonprofit is the planetarium’s “booster club,” as Bartlett described it, while the APS owns the facility and provides much of its funding.

While staff and students all missed the planetarium, the three-year closure and renovation of the adjacent building allowed for much-needed updates, as well as staff changes.

Earlier this summer, Arlington Public Schools hired Mary Clendenning as the school system’s new full-time planetarium specialist. For those who were regulars at the planetarium, she might be familiar, having featured the weekend lineup for several years before the shutdown. She also has over two decades of experience teaching science in the classroom.

“I’m thrilled to be the new Arlington Planetarium Specialist!” she wrote in the August newsletter of the Friends of the Planetarium. “This new position offers me the opportunity to combine my passions while using a state-of-the-art projection system, the Digistar 7. I am thrilled to be a part of the re-opening of an Arlington treasure, the Planetarium.”

The new projector system mentioned by Clendenning should be the star of the show.

When the planetarium opened over five decades ago, it had a mechanical optical system – essentially a ball that projected stars, ran patterns of the night sky and faded lights to simulate the sun’s journey.

Then, in 2012, a new digital system replaced the old one. But like any computer, a ten-year-old system is obsolete.

“Technology is changing so rapidly that to continue delivering cutting-edge programming, we need to upgrade to newer hardware,” Bartlett said. “We want to continue to deliver programs that are being written about the science that’s happening now.”

The new Digistar 7 system cost $209,000, coming from a combination of funds carried over from last year’s APS budget and contributions funded by Friends.

Bartlett said the new projection system will allow educators to offer programs beyond astronomy, including courses in oceanography, earth science and biology.

The new projection system, like almost all technology these days, needs an internet connection, so the planetarium now has Wi-Fi.

Another thing planetarium goers will notice when visiting later this year is a missing mural.

While connecting some ductwork to the HVAC system of the newly renovated WL Annex, the outer shell of the planetarium and parts of the interior entrance hallway were found to contain asbestos. APS decided to remove the asbestos inside and because of this had to remove a mural depicting planets, the Milky Way solar system and other galactic images which Bartlett said had were painted in the 1980s.

Although a little disappointing, this opens up a wall space that could be used as an extension of the planetarium mission.

“That might involve replacing the artwork with something similar or something more up to date in terms of our understanding of the space,” Bartlett said. “It could also involve electronic signage where we could get programs like NASA’s View Space or have announcements.”

Currently, the wall is painted in a gradation of color to help visitors transition from light to dark as they enter. Discussion of what to do next will begin after the planetarium reopens to the public, Bartlett said.

The planetarium opened in 1969 and was renamed in 2008 to honor Yorktown High graduate and astronaut David M. Brown, who died in the 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia explosion. It nearly closed permanently in 2010 when APS faced a budget crisis. However, it was saved thanks to contributions of $435,000 from the brand new Friends of Arlington’s Planetarium and others.

Bartlett, who also teaches at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, said the Arlington Planetarium has always been a powerful tool that helps students get excited about the skies above.

With these latest updates, the hope is that the planetarium will be around for generations to come.

“I think my son was only two when I took him to his first show. [at the planetarium], and he was just completely engrossed,” she said. “We are very happy to be back under the dome, to welcome our entire community and to know that our students will continue to have this very immersive experience. We hope this will allow them to better engage with science in the classroom.

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