The new Dr. Edmond E. Griffin Planetarium at the University of Central Arkansas is receiving a lot of support from the community with constant sold-out shows since opening in January.

Director Scott Austin, who is also an associate professor in the UCA physics and astronomy department, said during the last show he only had two spots left in the 94-seat room and within minutes of closing the door had six people walk up.

"There seems to be a lot of word of mouth, lot of people talking to other people," he said. "It’s been generating a lot of audiences consistently."

Austin said while UCA’s previous planetarium generated some feedback, but the new system delivers a bigger "wow factor," mainly because the last one was an analog system.

"It was built to just show you what the sky looked like from the surface of the earth and that was basically all you could do," he said. "This [new one] is a digital system. The computers that run it are creating a three-dimensional digital universe. You can go anywhere [and] do anything you want."

Austin said the new system is basically a virtual reality machine, allowing anything to be built.

"With this database, we can fly throughout the galaxy … we can fly to other galaxies," he said. "You can deal with topics that you would otherwise not be able to really demonstrate with the old planetarium."

Austin said it’s different, but people really seem to enjoy the demonstrations and the movies that have been projected on the 40-foot diameter dome. He said it feels good to hear the exclaims and sometimes applause from the audience after a show.

"It’s really satisfying to see that you’ve connected with them," Austin said. "It’s night and day in terms of what you can do. My favorite part is being able to demonstrate things that I wasn’t able to before."

He said with the old system there was a finite number of things that he could demonstrate, but with the new one the possibilities are endless.

"It’s opened up a lot," Austin said.

The mission of the facility, he said, is educating UCA and kindergarten through 12th grade students in the area as well as the general public on science.

"It’s a science outreach facility at the very core of what we’re doing," Austin said.

While the main focus of the facility is astronomy, he said they have the ability to purchase full-dome movies on any subject imaginable.

"When I say the possibilities are endless, they are," Austin said.

He said he encourages everyone to take advantage of, not only the planetarium, but all of the educational opportunities that UCA offers to the community.

"We have things that are cultural things, science things, enrichment things of various types that if they’re not coming, they’re not getting those experiences," Austin said. "They’re here if they want."

Right now, he said, he has shows planned through the end of May, but the summer is up in the air, something the facility is currently trying to decide.

Shows for the general public start at 8 p.m. and last an hour. Admission is free, but donations are encouraged.

One-hour shows include a tour of the current evening sky and one of the following full-dome productions:"Two Small Pieces of Glass-The Amazing Telescope" on March 10, 11, 17, 18 and May 12, 13, 19 and 20."Secret Life of Stars" on March 31 and April 1, 7 and 8."Invaders of Mars" on Feb. 17 and 18 and April 14, 15, 21 and 22."Stars of the Pharaohs" on Feb. 24 and 25, March 3 and 4, April 28 and 29 and May 5 and 6.

School groups are can be scheduled for 10 a.m. on Wednesday and Thursdays and can call UCA’s Department of Physics and Astronomy at 501-450-5900 to reserve.

The Griffin Planetarium is supported by Dr. Sue Griffin, a world-class neurologist at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, and is named in honor of her husband Dr. Ed Griffin, who was a UCA faculty member for several years and chair of the UCA Biology Department.

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