The St. John's Centre
and the
Marine Institute Planetarium

Garry Dymond

(Photos by Brian Payton)

I can still remember the first time I visited the only permanent planetarium in St.John's. It was open house (1969) at the College of Fisheries, Navigation, Marine Engineering and Electronics, affectionately known as the COD College. The College was located on Parade Street in the same building that originally housed Memorial College which was later to become Memorial University of Newfoundland. After being led down a long corridor, through the secretary's office and up three steps to a dark room. I saw, hanging from the ceiling by chains and eye bolts, a fourteen foot dome. Under the glow of red lights, at the centre of the dome stood what looked like a giant squid monster. This turned out to be a Nova III Star Projector and planet cage. Surrounding the star projector were sixteen metal folding chairs, probably removed from the cafeteria! The ten minute show that was presented was about celestial navigation. Afterwards, I spoke to the instructor, a Captain Proven, who introduced me to the RASC St. John's Centre of which he was the Secretary.

Soon after formation in 1964, the College of Fisheries , Navigation and Marine Engineering and Electronics acquired the Nova III planetarium. It was to be used in teaching of astronomy to its Diploma Courses in Technology - Nautical Science and Celestial Navigation leading to a certificate of Master Mariner.

The college planetarium consisted of a fourteen foot diameter fibreglass dome, with a Nova III pin point star projector with a planet cage projector. It also had motor drives for latitude; daily star, sun, moon and planets. Other accessories included projectors for the celestial equator, the meridian and the ecliptic. The unit also supported a hand held arrow pointer and a constellation projector. The Nova III was developed in 1962 by Albert Faulkner for Harmonic Reed Company (USA) and the College got one of the prototypes which were selling for about $2,000.00 US at the time.

Initially Captain J. J. Strong was instructing at the College and was one of the founding members of a student Campus Astronomy Club which would later lead to the establishment of the St. John's Centre of the RASC in 1966. In those early those years each meeting of that Astronomy Club would end with a short visit to the planetarium where "what was in the sky for that month" would be shown. The planetarium was only available to the public during the annual open house or being a member of the club. The Centre would hold open planetarium nights twice a year, with the Christmas show being presented by J. J. Strong and Dora Russell.

Later Capt. Proven took over Mr. Strong's position at the College and he added, as a special effect for the Christmas show, a silhouette of three wise men. He also made planetarium shows available for groups such as the Boy Scouts and Girl Guides. As his schedule got busier he had a hard time making meetings and offered to teach members how to use the planetarium to do these shows. That was how I learned.

After Captain Proven left there was no one left at the college willing to keep the student side of the club running so the St. John's Centre's ties with the College weakened. Access to the planetarium was now through Commodore Douglas who had replaced Proven's position at the College. By then some of the working parts of the projector system were showing signs of wear and there was no money to spend on fixing it.

In 1985, the College moved to its new residence in Ridge Road , St. John's and became the Marine Institute and the planetarium was upgraded.

The Marine Institute is now an integral part of Memorial University of Newfoundland. By 1985 the original suppliers Space Education Laboratories, USA had been taken over by Spitz Space System Inc. and the new star projector in the Institute was a combination of the Nova III instrument direct control console, with the main star projection system being replaced with a new sphere enclosing an ILA/Xenon lamp E 20W (GES-1) in a LMP cup assembly.

This produced brighter star then the previous sphere which only used a single GE 13 (3.7v) bulb. The planet cage projector for sun, moon and planets remained similar to the earlier projection system, i.e. by utilizing GE 13 miniature Edison screw bulbs. An eighteen foot dome was installed in a dedicated room in the new building along with 26 comfortable reclining planetarium seats. Cove lighting to create sunrise and sunset effect was also an additional feature.

By 1987 the student Astronomy Club at the Marine Institute had died out and with no faculty ties those of us outside of the Marine Institute's direct activities were asked to leave the Marine Institute. Members of the St. John's Centre of the Royal Astronomical Society were now meeting at Memorial University and any use of the planetarium was only by booking. The St. John's Centre continues to meet in University Science facilities for which it is grateful. Staffed by Marine Institute members or students the planetarium was being used for schools, Scouts and Guide groups but with cut backs, the upkeep was taking its toll. Because of equipment problems by 1995 there were fewer bookings so the Marine Institute was not opening the planetarium to the public.

In 1996 the St. John's Centre of the RASC approached the Marine Institute and open talks to see if we could develop a joint partnership between the Institute and ourselves in getting more access to the planetarium for our members, as well as to use it for the general public. Thanks to the interest of Captain Phillip Bulman and Mr David Keeping of the Marine Institute these negotiations were successful and by 1998 we arrived at an agreement in which the St. John's Centre of the RASC would keep up the general maintenance of the projector and in return we would get use of the planetarium. Obviously any use by the Marine Institute would take precedent but the St, John's Centre would not be interested in daytime use except perhaps at weekends. This use was not only to be for our own members but would also allow our members to give presentations to the general public such as the Scouts and Guide movement, schools, and other interested groups.

By January of 1998 we had a key to the planetarium and started to determine any faults with the projector. The planetarium was basically run down from lack of general maintenance. We were given two instruction books and manuals on the Nova III planetarium but it wasn't until we got into fixing the wiring that we found out that there had been changes in the projector system since those service books had been produced. After a few phone calls to a Ralph Menzo of Spritz we were able to learn that no manual had been made for the projector at the Marine Institute as it was constructed from two machines. Spitz were able to supply us with circuit diagrams of the power supply for the Xenon bulb, which otherwise was not in the manuals available to us. We had also noticed that the diurnal and latitude motors were not working. The motors must have been a recurring problem as we found that over the ten years of previous use the Institute had brought four motors at $450.00 US each. We also found out that the problem wasn't with the motor as such but one of the plastic gears in the train of gears within the motor casing. Fortunately we found replacement gears could be purchased for $25.00 US each. In addition to having members that have some mechanical skills we are also lucky to have members, such as Jack Cocker, whose professional expertise in electric and electronic fields have been a great help.

We found that some of the light bulbs (3.7v miniatures) in the planet cage had burnt out. Replacement bulbs were also needed for indicating the position of cardinal points around the dome. In order to use the sunrise and sun set effect a number of fluorescent tubes in the cove lighting had to be replaced. From our subsequent experiences it appears that the St. John's Centre of the RASC are the only people in the City, and probably the whole Province that need 3.7v miniature Edison screws bulbs! Nevertheless we had the planetarium up and running in two months. Brian Payton also designed two slide projector mounts so that slides can now be projected onto the dome. Placed either side of the console are two projectors at 180 degrees to each other. In order to keep the projectors horizontal front surface mirrors deflect the images up to the dome.

The system requires duplicate slides so that viewers, regardless of their seating, are able to see any projected images without them appearing upside down. This now brings us up to a level 2 on the L-H-S Level Specification of Planetarium capabilities. I then started to write and present planetarium shows for the general public, mostly catering to Guides, Scouts and schools.

The public demand for the planetarium has been more then we expected. At times we have been running four show a week and have been busy giving over 40 shows since February, with an estimate of over 100 people going through. We are now looking for help amongst our members in the running of the planetarium as it is more then can be handled by Brian and myself. Although the star projection system attempts to mimic a realistic view of the sky it still takes some while to become familiar with the projected constellations on this much smaller dome as compared with the real sky.

Given the erudition of some of the very much younger folks that frequently seem to be in our audiences, one has to get familiar with the over all view given by the planetarium's smaller dome if you wish to convince your young audiences that you have some degree of expertise. Nevertheless the sessions we have had so far have been great fun and enjoyed by all.

We are also looking for some equipment to make the planetarium shows run better. We are in need of slides projectors and a stereo system to add to the shows entertainment value. If any of our members are creative in writing a show or know how to make a special effect to add to the show, or if they have some astronomy slides or photos to use in these show let me know. If they want to book the planetarium for a show for a group or a bunch of friends, you can do so by calling the Marine Institute at 778-0372.

At the request of the Marine Institute it has been our policy and to ask for a donation of $2.00 per head on these occasions. Half of this goes to the Marine Institute's Scholarship Fund and the other half to help support the RASC St. John's Centre in running and maintaining a functional system.

Our use of the planetarium has also allowed us to widen still further our public education program For some years now this has included two evening courses in Memorial University's continuing education program, one basic introductory course in the fall and another slightly more advanced on in the spring semester. The Centre's members also present occasional direct viewing opportunities at both Terra Nova National Park and , closer to St. John's, at Butter Pot Provincial Park.