Planetarium and Blue Mountain Observatory

Mark Reiser hosts a planetarium show


Department of Physics and Astronomy instructor Mark Reiser has great enthusiasm for the UM Planetarium. “This planetarium is unique and amazing for many reasons,” Reiser said. “It’s rare for a university campus of our size to have a fully digital planetarium, and one that is run in large part by a talented group of students. Plus, it’s a small and intimate space, so the conversations between the instructor and participants are engaging. I think all of us who do shows here view this as an enhanced classroom and we do very few pre-recorded programs because we prefer the interactions.”

The physical set-up of the planetarium aids in these conversations – the seating is egalitarian in that every seat is a good seat and can interact well with the instructor who is seated at the computer running the show. Additionally, the acoustics are stellar [pun intended] – you can hear the instructor across the dome as if they are sitting directly next to you. (So, don’t tell any secrets in the planetarium that you don’t want the person across the dome to know.)

The fact that the planetarium is digital has many advantages over old mechanical planetariums. The system is powerful, programmable, and highly versatile so it allows attendees to see constellations that are currently in the night sky as well as giving them a chance to travel outside of the Earth to explore other objects in the universe. All of this exploration materializes with apparent ease for those seated around the planetarium, but it requires sophisticated computer programming and well-trained instructors. Reiser credits Loren Spencer, an undergraduate student, “who created an array of visuals and programming that are available at the touch of a button. Loren is great and has an innate passion for teaching science. I get the pleasure of training students like Loren to host programs, and I also love to present shows myself.”

Shows are put on for school groups, private groups, and the general public. Public shows are on Thursday evenings with prices that are intended to be accessible for most people in the community. During each public program visitors take a tour of the current night skies of Missoula, and then explore a particular topic such as unique night sky phenomena, our solar system and its exploration, extrasolar planets found within the Milky Way, or large scale patterns of the universe as a whole. Shows usually sell out in advance due to popularity!

Schedule of public shows.

Mark Reiser hosts a planetarium show indicating big dipper
Department of Physics and Astronomy instructor Mark Reiser hosts a planetarium show for prospective students and Admissions staff.

Blue Mountain Observatory

Ever wanted to get away from town – away from light pollution – and see objects in the night sky, but feel like you need a guide to do that? The Blue Mountain Observatory provides that exact experience!

The Blue Mountain Observatory (BMO) was Montana’s first astronomical research observatory and has been open to the public since its inception. It is located on top of Blue Mountain at an elevation of 6,300 feet, and it is operated by the University of Montana. The Department of Physics and Astronomy faculty, staff, and students offer public open houses during the summer months when the road to the observatory is accessible.

BMO opened in 1970, so it will celebrate 50 years of existence next spring. The story of how it was started is fascinating – including how the perfect location was chosen – and you can read some of that story (and see old paper advertisements) here:

UM staff member Nick Wethington is the BMO Coordinator. (He’s also the President of the Western Montana Astronomical Association and the Making and Tinkering Programs Manager at spectrUM Discovery Area.) As an undergraduate student at Iowa State University, he majored in English literature and did astronomy writing. In 2013, he moved to Missoula and got involved with spectrUM, which in turn got him involved with BMO.

Wethington shared, “I enjoy being at BMO with the UM students because they get to share what they’re learning right now in class with the public. The telescopes at BMO are used by students to practice skills finding objects in the sky and sharing that information with public. It’s a building block for being able to communicate with research and grant funding organizations in easy, accessible ways. For students who want to use a telescope for research in UM classes, the telescope on top of the Skaggs Building is ideal for that.”

He enjoys the chance to do outreach and interpret the night sky, a passion that extends to using the telescope that he built. He was interested in learning how telescopes work so he built his own, which he brings to BMO. Other astronomy club members bring their telescopes and knowledge of the night sky to share, so while the dome can only hold about 15 people, there are generally other telescopes around the observatory that people can look through.

“BMO is in a great location,” Wethington stated, “It’s far enough away that the sky is really dark so we can see dimmer objects, and the way that it is situated blocks out Missoula’s light pollution. Also, because of the elevation, the inversion effect that sometimes leaves Missoula cloudy doesn’t seem to have the same effect at BMO; sometimes it’s even warmer at BMO than in town. It’s funny to think that even though it’s only 15 miles away from town, it takes about an hour to get there because of the rugged forest roads.”

The number of viewing sessions that they can host at BMO depends on adequate staffing and weather. There are generally four or five free open houses and four or five limited availability sessions (groups of 25 people) each summer. Due to the popularity of these events, reservations are required. One lucky participant last summer was Hunter Wiggins of the Montana Kaimin. Read Wiggen's article, "Stargazing Atop Blue Mountain".

observatory operator, shows a young visitor the night sky
Mitchell Schaller, a University of Montana senior and observatory operator, shows a young visitor the night sky. Credit: Hunter Wiggins / Montana Kaimin.
people gathering at Blue Mountain Observatory before dark
Gathering at Blue Mountain Observatory before dark. Credit: Hunter Wiggins / Montana Kaimin.