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York County planetarium hopes to retire old star ball

Watching a program in the Museum of York County's Settlemyre Planetarium is sort of like revisiting the past.

Two-dimensional static images float across the domed ceiling, lit with tiny star-like flecks of light. In one program, children take a trip through space on a cardboard rocket. Their voices play out the scenes, the subtle scratches of a recording and instrumental music playing underneath their voices.

With county leaders' approval, the decades-old planetarium equipment will be one step closer to being replaced with more modern digital equipment.

The upgrade would allow the planetarium to feature more than just space science programs, said Cate Crane, director of education for the Culture and Heritage Museums.

Ice worlds, the African Serengeti, oceans, cells and the immune system - even sea monsters from prehistoric ecosystems - are programs the museum could offer with a new planetarium, she said.

The Museums of York County might receive $150,000 in grant money to modernize the planetarium, replacing the star ball projector installed in the late 1970s.

Some of the support for the planetarium improvements - expected to cost more than $500,000 total - might come from hospitality tax dollars, which must be used for tourism-related projects.

The York County Council will consider approving the funds when it meets Oct. 17.

Museum staff have openly expressed the need for a new planetarium.

The bulky projector - which rivals the size of some prehistoric fossils -commands the middle of the planetarium floor, casting tiny lights on the domed ceiling above.

The contraption, however, fades out once the lights are dimmed and the program is rolling, and the machine still has some charms.

Unlike a digital projector, each of the 2,400 stars in the analog machine is drilled and lensed to provide the smallest, but sharpest pinhole stars.

A tiny arc light with a high current is so bright it casts light 30 feet onto the dome.

Digital hasn't matched that effect yet, said Glenn Dantzler, the planetarium's technician and docent since 1991. Though retired, Dantzler still comes by to work on the equipment and teaches the advanced astronomy classes for high school and college classes.

Several slide projectors with static images provide other visual effects for different themed programs. The images move around the dome for effect.

"In 1991 (the programs) were still wowing children," Dantzler said. "But with the advent of the Wii and the Xbox, it takes a lot more to wow them now."

Museum staff have been exploring digital options that would allow for "immersive reality, where you are inside the program," he said.

The museum, which supplements local schools with education programming, "can't make use of all the science content from science organizations because we can't support the technology," Crane said.

With an upgraded digital system, the planetarium will be able to support live feeds from weather and science organization's sites.

It will also allow the museum to participate in new partnership programs with museums of the Smithsonian Institution that work with prominent universities to create educational opportunities.

The museum also received some grant money already toward the planetarium renovations. Staff will continue to seek additional sources of support.

The star ball could find a second life with a new owner, Dantzler said. Star ball technology is still "extraordinarily accurate" in producing an precise sky.

When the star ball comes down, Dantzler knows what he'll say: "Good and faithful servant. You've done your job well. Rest in peace."