Franklin Park’s Galaxy Gazing Magnified with Digital Planetarium

The Franklin Park Arts Center on Thursday unveiled a new digital planetarium that will offer students and other visitors a view of the stars and planets from under an inflated dome.

Dan and Arlene McGinnis, who live near the park, donated the Digitarium Delta 4 Planetarium system to the county. The equipment uses a portable, inflatable dome to create a full planetarium experience—displaying constellations, zooming in on and labeling objects in space, demonstrating motion and more to engage students and audiences of all ages. Up to 30 people will be able to enter the planetarium for each show.

It was during construction of the arts center in the late 1990s the McGinnis family, through their family foundation, made the donation with the hope that the center could include some type of observatory or star-gazing opportunity. At the time, proponents were hoping to enhance the park’s night-sky stargazing opportunities by adding a small observatory, with one concept envisioning a telescope in the center’s silo that would project the images to crowds in the main theater.

The county did not move forward with the project. Last year, the staff and the McGinnis family participated in a demonstration of the Digitarium system and agreed it provided a good opportunity to complete the vision.

Dan and Arlene McGinnis look up at the stars during the inaugural demonstration of the Digitarium Delta 4 Planetarium system at the Franklin Park Arts Center. Their family foundation donated the money during the park’s development when the possibility of including a small observatory at the park was being explored.

Among those attending the dedication ceremony was Former Blue Ridge District Supervisor Eleanore Towe, who served when Franklin Park was being planned and developed. She said the new planetarium was an important capstone to the project, fulfilling a promise made to the community.

Center Director Elizabeth Bracey said the staff if still being trained to operate the planetarium. Some star shows are planned during the summer, with regularly scheduled programs staring in September.

Bracey said the planetarium programs could provide a much-needed bridge between two different groups of park users. “If you’ve ever been here on an afternoon or a weekend, you’ll see a lot of people outside that don’t know the arts center exists. And if you’ve ever been here for a theatrical program, you’ll talk to people who don’t know there is a pool here at the park,” she said. “This, I think, is the kind of thing that will bring people from the outdoors inside and people from the performing arts—indoor people—outside and really  help us enjoy everything about the park as one large community.”

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