Since 1987, the William M. Staerkel Planetarium has brought the universe to Champaign-Urbana even if the skies are cloudy.
Parkland College’s first president, William Staerkel, dreamed of establishing a cultural center on campus, engaging the community in arts and sciences with a theater and a planetarium. That vision was realized at the end of his tenure and the planetarium was named in his honor.
Staerkel Planetarium opened at Parkland College the year after Halley’s Comet appeared in the sky, and the dedication included a time capsule that will be reopened when the comet returns in 2061. The 50-foot dome, the second largest in Illinois, still houses its original Carl Zeiss mechanical star projector, and a Digistar projection system was installed in 2010 to allow the planetarium to play full-dome video.
Today, the planetarium welcomes 10,000 schoolchildren on field trips to the dome each year and serves as a first impression to the college for many people in East Central Illinois.
The planetarium has served as a gathering point for many space events over the last three decades. The Champaign-Urbana Astronomical Society holds monthly meetings on site, and the planetarium has hosted observations of solar and lunar eclipses, viewing of Mercury and Venus passing across the Sun, and close approaches of Mars. The dome also broadcast live feeds of the Curiosity rover landing on Mars and New Horizons flying past Pluto.
Whenever Parkland College is open, Staerkel Planetarium offers public shows in the evening on Fridays and Saturdays and hosts field trips on weekdays. Members of the staff also make “house calls,” giving talks around the area. A popular option is the Traveling Space Suit Show, which lets a lucky person wear a simulated space suit.
Live-narrated shows are on Fridays (7 p.m.). Prairie Skies offers a tour of the night sky, which changes depending on the season. The presenter includes a few items of astronomy news as well.
After seeing one of our shows, we hope you’ll be inspired to check out the stars and planets in your backyard. Clear skies!