When it comes to mysterious and unknown destinations at Sam Houston State University, the planetarium and observatory are at the top of the list.
Many students do not know about these facilities unless they are Physics majors or are participating in the introduction to astronomy or stars and galaxies classes. Physics staff lab assistant Mike Prokosch educates students on all the planetarium and the observatory have to offer.
“Most students don’t realize that what we do at the observatory and the planetarium are actually very separate,” Prokosch said. “At the observatory, we analyze the sun, planets and the moon, and at the planetarium, the stars, galaxies and super-novas. The planetarium gives us the advantage to see the things that we cannot see at the observatory because those things are out of our solar system and not able to be seen through a telescope. Another advantage of the planetarium is that we can fast forward or rewind the skies rotations and we don’t have to worry about it being cloudy, rainy, daytime or nighttime like we do out at the observatory. “
Prokosch is a middle school special education teacher in Livingston and has been working as a lab assistant at SHSU for 11 years. His objective as a lab assistant is to give astronomy students knowledge about the solar system and coordinates what they learn at the planetarium.
Students have opportunities for hands-on experience with the eight telescopes that are offered at the observatory, including the large telescope that is 16 inches across. Prokosch hopes that these are experiences that will remain with students for their whole lives.
“In all likelihood these students may never actually go to an observatory or planetarium again after these classes,” Prokosch said. “However, they are going to have children and grandchildren one day who are going to be asking about the stars and planets and they are going to remember coming out to the observatory or visiting the planetarium. They might not remember me or what I said, but they are going to remember the things that they saw. This is one of those things that many people do to scratch off of their bucket list.”
Another detail that is often forgotten about the planetarium and observatory is their age and establishment. The planetarium is located in the Farrington building, which was built in 1959. Prokosch believes the building was built with the intention of the planetarium because of how the roof extends into the second floor of the building. The planetarium was recently updated in November 2014 and is said to now have a top-of-the-line projector.
As for the observatory, Prokosch said the dome that now sits on the grounds used to sit on the top of the Farrington building until it was moved to the observatory grounds in the late 1990’s. The dome is now used to house a large telescope.
While it has a narrow view, Prokosch uses the telescope to take images of planets such as Jupiter as well as an asteroid that was predicted to cross the constellation of Cancer between late night Jan. 26 or early morning Jan. 27.
“Asteroids fly by all of the time and most of the time we don’t even know that they are there,” Prokosch said. “Asteroids are the only natural disasters that we can prevent. You cannot stop an earthquake, tornado or a hurricane, but you [can] with an asteroid. You can detect it years before it ever reaches earth. The significant thing about this particular asteroid that I am trying to capture is that we detected it more than a decade ago, which is why its name is 2004BL86. It is the size of the Astrodome and luckily it is three times the distance of the earth and the moon, which means that it is missing the earth by a long shot. “
According to Prokosch, the labs for the observatory begin in February but are exclusive to students who are taking astronomy classes and are asked to come out as a mandatory requirement. However, if a student that is not taking the class is interested in visiting the observatory Prokosch encourages them to email him at email@example.com and he can let them know when would be the best time to come out so that there are no unexpected visitors on the observatory’s grounds.
“For students that want to pursue a career in physics but are on the fence, I would encourage them to have a serious talk with Dr. Renee James and Dr. Scott Miller because they could tell you what is possible and what is probable,” Prokosch said. “I’ll be honest, astronomy is not easy and it has a great deal of arithmetic included in it. I’m in that category of people who think that it is hard and empathize with students on it. However, it is just a part of something that I love to do which is look up at the sky and capture pictures of amazing things.”
The planetarium has a dozen new shows scheduled for this semester, the first being called ‘Astronomy: 3,000 years of Stargazing.’ This full-length feature premieres tomorrow at 7 p.m. in the Farrington Building, room 102.
Admission is free and open to all students.
For a complete list of shows and show times, like the “SHSU Planetarium” page on Facebook.