As JMU families flock to campus for Family Weekend, the John C. Wells Planetarium will welcome them with a selection of free educational programs Oct.1. Each event will take place in the planetarium’s dome theater and are first come, first served.
The 30-minute movie “Magic Tree House: Space Mission'' will have 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. showings on the dome screen. The movie follows siblings Jack and Annie as they explore space, using their Magic Tree House to go on a fantastical journey across the Universe.
The movie will be followed by a “star talk” using the Planetarium’s dome, where a speaker highlights stars, planets and constellations that are visible in the Shenandoah Valley night sky. Geary Albright, director of the planetarium, said this movie is an adventure story aimed at younger audiences, including siblings visiting older Dukes.
“I’m hoping we get a lot of JMU families to come [for Family] Weekend,” Albright said. “This is one of the nicest little planetariums on the whole East Coast, so it’s a pretty special place.”
Also on Saturday are 2:15 p.m. and 3 p.m. showings of “The Incredible Sun”, which is an informational presentation that uses real images from the Solar Dynamics observatory. It shows the “true nature of the sun,” he said, which includes powerful solar flares, sunspots and coronal mass ejections which can affect technology on Earth from across the solar system. Albright said the presentation is also followed by a “star talk” from a planetarium staff member and a closer look at the night sky.
These events are the planetarium’s usual weekend events, Albright said. The same schedule happens every Saturday with different movies. Albright said he chooses the planetarium movies himself, trying to appeal to families and people of all ages. Two movies are offered at a time and rotate out monthly, he said. One is chosen for a broad audience, while the other is usually aimed at a younger audience.
“The planetarium gives people a good family outing for free, which is nice,” Albright said. “It helps to do something where they’re engaging their mind as well as enjoying themselves, which I think is a win-win.”
Free Saturday shows are being offered regularly this semester for the first time since the pandemic.
“When we started fall semester,” Albright said, “we still had full-on masking. I was hesitant to open. We didn’t have anybody trained, and then around March we couldn’t just immediately pivot.”
Albright said the planetarium has been presenting to JMU-sponsored groups since last spring, but this fall will be the reopening of the usual reservation system for school groups.
He’s training students to help give star talks and run events as the planetarium works to build back up to a full staff. Albright said he hopes to keep the planetarium engaging for JMU students, as well as the surrounding community.
“My goal is that any student or any person who grows up within an hour bus ride up here remembers coming to this Planetarium at some point,” Albright said.
Advertising for events like Family Weekend, Albright said, helps to raise student awareness of programs like the planetarium, and he said he wants to offer more open programs during weekdays to fit with different schedules. Albright said he hopes to see JMU students filling up the audience and bringing their friends every week to see the stars. He said he believes the planetarium has a “universal appeal.”
“Almost everyone, if you go out on a really nice starry night, and you look up … that makes you wonder what’s out there. Where does this all fit in?” Albright said. “It’s exciting to be a part of something where there’s a real curiosity about it.”
Contact Lizzie Stone at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more coverage of JMU and Harrisonburg news, follow the news desk on Twitter @BreezeNewsJMU.