The Daily Tar Heel

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Wednesday December 8th

Morehead Planetarium phases in new digital projector system

An updated projector will replace the 42-year-old Zeiss VI.

The Morehead Planetarium is in the process of phasing out the 42-year-old Zeiss VI Star Projector for a new digital projection system. The digital projectors will not be visible like the current projector, making the planetarium experience much different.
Buy Photos The Morehead Planetarium is in the process of phasing out the 42-year-old Zeiss VI Star Projector for a new digital projection system. The digital projectors will not be visible like the current projector, making the planetarium experience much different.

It’s more than the two-ton, metal, UFO look-alike in the middle of the room.

And it’s more than the creator of a far-reaching star show across the ceiling of the Morehead Planetarium and Science Center.

The Zeiss Model VI Star Projector is a community legacy, and its death is imminent.

A symbol of the planetarium, it will be completely phased out by September to make room for a new digital projection system.

The 42-year-old Zeiss projector was designed for 25 years of use, and when planetarium Director Todd Boyette joined in 2006, the projector was 37 years old.

Boyette said he quickly saw that the machine’s age could represent a liability for the planetarium. If it broke, it would have been hard to fix, he said.

“There was no choice,” he said. “The Zeiss had to be replaced.”

The $1.5 million transition to the digital system was fully funded by GlaxoSmithKline through a grant a few years before the upgrade, Boyette said.

The planetarium shifted to a digital system in January 2010 and the Zeiss projector has been gradually phased out since then. The only programs still performed with the Zeiss projector are the programs for school children. The last show in the GlaxoSmithKline Fulldome Theater will be May 6.

Chief technician Steve Nichol has been working on the Zeiss projector since he joined the planetarium staff 26 years ago. He said Chancellor Holden Thorp calls him “the one that makes it all work.”

“That’s been part of my driving force, personally, to make sure it just continued working until we decided that it was time to disconnect the power,” Nichol said.

“Whenever you hear anyone in there, whether they’re kids or they’re adults, just take a deep sigh or exclamation whenever they see that starry night, that’s a reward,” he added.

Nichol, like many community members, said the projector has sentimental value.

“If there’s one remark that I continually hear, it’s whenever someone walks by and says, ‘Do you remember when we were in third grade visiting here?’” Nichol said. “And here is an adult visiting with their third grader.”

For years, the Morehead Planetarium has been a regular school field trip destination.

Lindley Barrow, the summer camp coordinator for the planetarium, said the Zeiss projector is extremely popular with children.

Boyette said the plan is to have the projector completely removed by early September.

But the 17-foot-long apparatus is not easy to disassemble, especially without anyone from the original installation process in 1969.

“We’re having to figure it out as we go,” Boyette said.

Planetarium staff members said they hope to display at least part of the projector, but that there are no concrete plans yet.

“It will remain dear to people’s hearts even if it’s not in use,” Barrow said.

Nichol said the “Farewell to Zeiss” event held last Thursday reflected how much the projector means to the community.

“Several people came up to me after feeling that there was a piece of Chapel Hill that was going to be gone,” Nichol said.

“But that’s how time progresses on. Things happen.”

Contact the University Editor at university@dailytarheel.com.

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