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Campus planetarium provides out of this world entertainment

Boasting an out-of-this-world experience, TJC’s own dome-style planetarium is one of the oldest planetariums in East Texas.

Hudnall Planetarium has been in continuous operation since its opening in 1963.

“That’s the same year that Martin Luther King Jr. did his ‘I have a dream’ speech, the same year that Kennedy was shot, and the same year that the U.S. Postal Service started using zip codes on their mail,” said Tom Hooten, director of Hudnall Planetarium and professor of physics and engineering at TJC. “It was before people walked on the moon, and in the very early stages of the space race.”

There have been three directors in the history of the planetarium and Hooten makes the fourth and newest edition. His responsibilities include supervising the planetarium in general, maintaining the equipment and conversing with the media.

“I’m literally the person that creates the shows,” said Hooten.

Events at Hudnall Planetarium range from hosting one show a month having something to do with astronomy; Public Astronomy Lecture Series (PALS), featuring different guest speakers; and the Astronomical Society of East Texas’ “star parties.”

The planetarium also caters not only to TJC students and faculty, but various school groups and business groups.

“In the course of 1963, I would guess that about a million kids have been through the planetarium,” said Hooten.

Over the years, the planetarium’s technology has evolved. Installations include slide projectors, a control system and video projectors.

“The next step is go to fully digital,” said Hooten. “There’s already been talk of upgrades.”

Hudnall Planetarium Scheduling Coordinator Misty Barron handles the calendar, schedules groups and plans shows. Private shows are done Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to noon and all TJC students get free admission to planetarium shows.

“February has probably been our busiest month,” said Barron. “We set up skies that look like the night sky and point out constellations and you can take it outside at night and apply what you learned that day,” said Barron.

Another physics instructor, Karen Williams, often takes her astronomy classes to the planetarium for lab activities.

“It’s such a great asset for the college,” said Williams.

Astronomy is an alternative that satisfies the core science credit for TJC students. In Williams’ classes, conflicting views often lead to interesting class discussions. An Internet component is also used for homework. Although a lot of reading is required, the course focuses on not being too science-and math-oriented.

“Sometimes it’s just really hard to wrap your head around,” said Williams. “But if you have that interest in science, give it a shot, because you just never know where it’s going to lead.”

The class is for non-science major students. There are two sections of the class; the solar system portion, which deals with everything inside our solar system, and the stars and galaxies portion, which deals with everything beyond.

“Astronomy is not just a bunch of bearded men sitting around in a room making up ideas,” said Hooten. “Astronomy is a science. It’s been around for a very long time, but it’s strongly based in scientific principles and scientific processes.”

Curiosity and amateur interest have always driven people to wonder about the mystery of astronomy.

“Realizing that the atoms in my body are made up of the same type of atoms that this planet is made of, and that the atoms in this planet are made of the same type of elements that exist in stars is probably the most aweinspiring thing about astronomy,” said Hooten.

“We are the universe. We are how the universe knows itself.”

The class is taught so that the student will leave having been exposed to new ideas and holding a better appreciation of the vastness of the universe.

“This is pretty much what I wanted to do from the beginning,” said Hooten. “And so here I am, at TJC, living the dream.”

The next public planetarium show “Star Gazer” follows the astronomer Dr. Jim Kaler through his professional career and will be at 2 p.m on Mar. 27-28 in Hudnall Planetarium.

The next PALS lecture “Looking Back: Astronomy as a Time Capsule” will host Justin Parrish as the speaker at 7 p.m. on Mar. 27 in Apache Room #4.

The planetarium is located on the Tyler Junior College main campus near the intersection of Mahon Avenue and Lake Street. For more information call (903) 510-2312.

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