Open house for inflatable planetarium at Jay C. Hormel Nature Center to be held Saturday

Viewing the stars during the day won’t be an issue Saturday at the Jay C. Hormel Nature Center.

Austin’s nature center now has a large, inflatable planetarium with high-definition technology that will be open to the public in the interpretive center classroom from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, with the last group taken into the planetarium at 3:40 p.m.

Attendees can join a nature center naturalist for a free, 15-minute presentation inside the StarLab planetarium that is about 20 feet across and 10 feet tall inside.

A dedication ceremony is planned for 12:30 p.m. in the interpretive center at the nature center, located at 1304 21st St. N.E.  For two weeks, Luke Reese, the Director of the Nature Center stated that the facility has put the new planetarium to use, with about a dozen classes of area students so far experiencing the celestial programming.

The nonprofit Friends of the Hormel Nature Center’s board of directors approved the planetarium’s purchase thanks to a $25,000 donation from Paul and Joanne Worlein, of Austin, and about $16,100 in previously donated funds from Gary and Pat Ray.  About $4,500 also was used from an estate gift by the late Ruth Wunderlich.

Started in the 1980s, the Friends of the Hormel Nature Center’s mission is to enhance and encourage environmental education, scientific opportunities and the enjoyment of nature at the Jay C. Hormel Nature Center.  For student programming, the planetarium can host up to 35 students at a time for its digital programs covering astronomy and earth science. Reese stated that this will be ideal for sixth-grade science field trips to the nature center, as well as for general programs for the public, including in relation to the new Cedar River Astronomy Club.

Nature center staff have put the planetarium to use this month with numerous classes of area students, whose common reaction to the new feature has been “whoa,” Reese said, adding that one student called it the “coolest thing.”  Reese added that teachers also appreciate that the planetarium and its curriculum align with science standards for sixth grade.

A year ago, the Friends paid for the rental of a similar, inflatable planetarium that was about 30 years old for use with area students and a public open house.

For each presentation Saturday, up to 20 people will be allowed inside the walk-in planetarium – a mini dome – that is accessible to those using a wheelchair. This will be done on a first-come, first-served basis; no shoes are allowed inside it.  Exhibits at the interpretive center also will be open to enjoy.

StarLab’s planetarium uses a computer to generate images displayed by a high-definition projector through a “fisheye” lens that projects a 180-degree field-of-view with limited or no distortion. With the computer, images can be changed easily and quickly.

With the StarLab computer software, nature center staff can offer a variety of topics inside the planetarium, including star and constellation names; planet views; moon and sun views; and geology. This software also comes with curriculum based on grade-level standards, which Reese stated is appreciated by teachers.

About two years ago, the nature center benefited from another major gift by the Worleins when they gave $25,000 toward the purchase of three Action Trackchairs to allow people with mobility challenges to more easily explore the center’s 10 miles of trails.  These are available for free rental and have been highly popular by locals and visitors to the community.

Austin Eagles Lookout Aerie 703 gave $7,065 toward the Action Trackchairs, with another $7,000 from the Friends of the Hormel Nature Center, $1,000 from Mayo Clinic Health System and $500 from Freeborn-Mower Cooperative’s Operation Round-Up.