$100,000 donor steps forward to save Ann Arbor Pioneer's Argus Planetarium
Janet Miller | AnnArbor.com file photo
Pioneer High School’s Argus Planetarium could receive a new name and a $100,000 donation for new equipment to keep it up and running.
Without the donation, the planetarium, a point of pride for the community, could suffer the fate of other planetariums in the state, said Argus Planetarium Director Ron Robinson.
“It takes a lot of vision to look at a program like this and find value,” he said. “Planetariums are going the way of the dodo bird. For someone to say this is important not only for students but for the public to have around — that takes thinking outside the box. It takes commitment to say: This is a jewel in Ann Arbor and we cannot let it fail.”
Last week, the Ann Arbor Public Schools received word of a donation made to the district’s education foundation for the specific purpose of funding critical upgrades to the planetarium.
IMRA, a global company specializing in ultrafast fiber laser technology, pledged the money and is expecting shared naming rights of the planetarium in return.
The new name, The Argus IMRA Planetarium, must be approved by the Board of Education to take effect. The school board will entertain the idea at a first reading during Wednesday’s regular meeting. A second reading and tentative approval is scheduled for Nov. 7.
According to school board policy, a facility can be named in honor of an entity that has provided significant financial contributions to the district. The Argus Camera Company received naming rights 56 years ago when it funded the construction of the planetarium.
About a year ago, AAPS sounded the alarm that $80,000 in technology upgrades was necessary to safeguard the planetarium’s status as the oldest continually operating planetarium at any school or college in the western hemisphere.
Robinson said the planetarium ultimately is comprised of three parts: the Digistar 3 Host Machine or computer system used to run the planetarium programs, the cove lighting around the dome, and the digital projector.
The Digistar Host Machine was installed in 2002 and has a useable life of about 10 years, Robinson said, explaining the system also runs through its four hard drives about every six months.
Those hard drives no longer are produced and no longer can be replaced, however. So for the past year, the system has operated “as if it’s had a gremlin inside,” Robinson said.
“One day it would be the graphics machine, the next day it wouldn’t talk to the projector — we really never knew which part was going to go when,” he said, adding to a certain extent, the failing infrastructure impacted how the district could use the planetarium for curriculum purposes.
“Some of the glitches I was able to do behind the scenes while talking to a class. I’d just keep talking while frantically trying to fix whatever technical issues the machine was having. Other times the program had to be interrupted and rebooted.”
Janet Miller | AnnArbor.com file photo
The money from IMRA will cover upgrading the Digistar 3 system to Digistar 5, the installation of new cove lighting and new signage to represent the new name.
Funds also will be set aside to cover the cost of opening the planetarium to the community for shows, Margolis said. Robinson added the district used to invite students in from parochial schools and neighboring districts to use the planetarium, until it started failing last fall.
AAPS also hopes the planetarium will generate additional revenue for the district down the road by hosting public events, he said.
The upgraded technology also will allow the district to get rid of the “big bulky hardware in the room” and add up to another 15 seats, for a total of 50. Robinson said this will help the district cut costs by having two classrooms attend a show at once, which also could save on busing.
He explained Digistar 5 can be operated from an iPad, which allows him to walk around the room and interact with students during a show, rather than be stuck in one corner operating the program from a large console.
The capabilities with the new Digistar 5 system are great, Robinson said. He said the planetarium experience is no longer simply about teaching the nighttime sky. “We can do so much more than that now.”
There are astronomical topics for all ages including the study of the Earth, space and geophysical science, as well as biology and history.