Hatter Planetarium brings local sky to life

Gettysburg College's own planetarium is a special place for the public to experience the wonders of astronomy.

Hatter Planetarium brings local sky to life
Ian Clarke, director of the Hatter Planetarium, works through a computer-generated rendition of the night sky.

There’s an astronomical treasure in Gettysburg that’s been opening up the skies to audiences since 1966, but few in the community know about it. Not quite hidden but neither common knowledge, the Hatter Planetarium in Master’s Hall on Gettysburg College’s campus hosts free, public shows throughout the year that expand knowledge of the stars and sky visible from one’s own backyard.

The planetarium hosts two recurring events each month while the college is in session. One, called “The Sky This Month,” takes viewers through the sun, planet and star positions visible that month. The second, delightfully titled “Astro Afternoon,” showcases four different shows, two of which are professional presentations about broader subjects in the astronomical world, the other two hosted by college staff.

“I think it’s absolutely huge to try and bridge the public to more scientific knowledge because at the current moment there’s a disconnect,” says Ethan Foote, one of the student managers of the planetarium.

Foote thinks the scientific community has been “really closed (off) and is, like, inner circles. I think Gettysburg College is trying to address that.”

Desireé Bernavel, a Gettysburg community member, took in a sky show for the first time at the planetarium’s recent Astro Afternoon in February. She had never been to a planetarium show and visited on the suggestion of a friend.

“It was super cool. It kinda tells you how deep things are rather than just what you see. That there’s more to it,” she said.

Staring up into the dome watching the movement of the stars left her mesmerized. “It awakened my inner child,” she said. ‌‌

Desiree Bernavel experienced a planetarium for the first time in February.

Explaining the science

Ian Clarke has been the planetarium’s director since 2000. Originally brought on campus in the early ‘90s to teach writing, he became friends with Larry Marschall, then a professor of physics at the college. In 1999, Marschall told Clarke they needed another Astronomy Lab instructor and asked if he would be interested. The self-styled astrophile jumped right in.

Clarke now manages the space, including maintenance, selecting and purchasing professional shows, and creating his own shows using specialized software. He narrates the shows each month as part of his duties, taking the audience through the specifics of what they can see that month and explaining the science behind it.

“My favorite part is probably talking to people about things they can see in the sky from their houses,” he says.

He adds bits of current events in the shows, too. February’s show included footage of NASA’s Orion spacecraft reentering Earth’s atmosphere and splashing down into the Pacific Ocean in December. He also talked about the recent appearance of the C/2022 E3 ZTF comet – also known as the ‘green comet’ – that made headlines all over the world.

The comet’s appearance in Earth’s skyline occurs only once every 50,000 years. While certainly an awe-inspiring event, Clarke considered the hype around the comet drummed up in many major news outlets to be sensationalist.

It was worth taking a look if one could see it, Clarke told the audience, but “don’t expect Hollywood.” ‌‌

Yaman Acharya, left, and Ethan Foote are two student managers of the planetarium.

Student Involvement‌‌

A benefit of the planetarium’s presence on campus is the opportunity for students to be involved in the production of shows and management of the space.

Foote, a physics and math major, is working his second year at the planetarium, introducing shows each month and conducting one with fellow students as part of the Hatter Planetarium Challenge. Last year was his first experience with the challenge.

“I really enjoyed it,” he says. “I love astronomy. I love physics. I was trying to couple that ability with being able to public speak. So I figured this was the perfect job for that.”

The challenge last year presented three audience participation shows that grew increasingly complex, according to Foote and Clarke. The first was a simple overview of constellations. The second was determining one’s position on the Earth using the position of the stars in the sky. The third dealt with proving our solar system is heliocentric, meaning the planets rotate around the sun.

“You’re … getting more scientific as the show progresses. You kind of start comfortable, and then you start delving deeper into the science as you go along,” Foote explains.

The planetarium is the perfect place to address the larger questions of the universe for Yaman Acharya, another student worker at Hatter. The freshman physics and math major enjoys scripting shows for the planetarium as part of his work there.

“I’m highly interested in connecting the STEM field to philosophy. It’s basically like, okay, what’s the significance of everything around us? There are stars. There are planets. How do we relate to them?”

“And, well, there is technically no answer to these questions,” he says, laughing at the relatively futility of his endeavor. “We can try to explore. There’s no harm in exploring.”


To find out more about Hatter Planetarium and to see a schedule of upcoming shows, visit the planetarium's website.