Photo Series: Cowley Planetarium


Photo taken by Henry Anderson.

Henry Anderson, Photojournalist

Every week at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, the planetarium, located in the basement of Cowley Hall on the east side of campus, hosts an Album Encounter

During an Album Encounter, the planetarium plays an album while effects are performed. These effects range from flashing red or blue lights onto the roof, showing the stars of the planetarium move, and showing those stars’ corresponding constellations. On Friday, Feb. 17, all of these effects were on display during the playing of Jeff Beck’s album “Truth.”

“Some people when they say, ‘planetarium,’ they mean the whole room meaning the machine, the room, and everything that comes with it,” said Bob Allen, former professor of astronomy at UWL. Allen continued, “The planetarium is basically that. There is a star ball at the top…and there is a strong light source inside of there.” He went on to explain that numerous features on the machine in the middle of the room allow for different planets and images to be shown.

“The purpose of the planetarium is to simulate the night sky.” Allen helps operate the planetarium in Cowley Hall during the Album Encounters events and other programs.

“Well over 80% of planetariums in the country have gone digital, and that is a video-based program,” said Allen. Allen continued by saying, “Here we are a little old school, we are an optical planetarium that uses EKTAgraphic 35 mm slides along with video clips from two video projectors.” These machines, along with the main star ball and light source in the middle, and a speaker system that surrounds the space, helps make up what the planetarium is.

While some technology has been updated such as the inclusion of LaserDisc programs and LED lights, the technology in the planetarium has remained the same. “The building was opened in 1966 and the planetarium was put in,” said Allen.

“There was a lot of government funding [into planetariums] because of the space race.” Allen continued, “Unlike today, there weren’t any STEM programs. The point was they were doing that without calling it that to produce scientists and to encourage interest in science.”

“You get a fifth grader that comes in here for a school program and they are looking for a university years later, they will come here years later and they have been here already,” said Allen. “Planetariums were built vastly not only to create interest in science but to create scientists.”

The planetarium hosts different types of programs, like Album Encounters, public programs like “Starry Secret – Spinning Straw into Gold,” and monthly astronomy club meetings. 

The planetarium is constantly going through different programs and hosts an Album Encounter each week showing a new album each time. For example, coming up on Feb. 24, the planetarium will be doing an album encounter of Three Days Grace’s album, “Explosions.” To get information about the planetarium, event parking, additional events, and more, visit the planetarium’s page on the UWL website or their Facebook page.