A Living Time Machine
2023-12-15 / Kat Hunt / Community Engagement
Up a steep hill that runs to the left side of a church in Chattanooga, TN, lies one of the city’s most interesting buildings. If you didn't know what to look for, you could easily miss it. Tucked inside a circle of trees, next to an equally historic cemetery, lies the Clarence T. Jones Observatory and Planetarium. Now under the stewardship of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, in collaboration with its founding organization, the Barnard Astronomical Society, the observatory and planetarium have been undergoing a major leap from the mid-20th Century to the present day.
When the planetarium at Jones Observatory was imagined in 1951, the telescope had already been in operation for over a decade. Once home to the largest telescope in the Southeast, it had even been an epicenter of telescope mirror manufacturing for the region. As the Space Race began its first lap in the US, many communities, Chattanooga included, began to erect domes with optical-mechanical projection systems in them to simulate the movement of the cosmos as they knew it at the time.
The 1950s and 60s came with a brand of innovation unparalleled. Scrappy citizen scientists and engineers would cobble together resources from some of the most unlikely places and create something new and groundbreaking. The original projector is still retained today as an homage to this history. While planetarium enthusiasts might see a system that looks very similar to the Spitz A-1, in reality, this fascinating artifact was made in-house. If you look closely at the projector, you can even spot the mechanics of a barber chair at its axis.
In 2023, it seems like the building itself is frozen in time. With the charm of old wood floors and photo slide frames come the challenges of maintaining and modernizing a building that is nearly 90 years old. If you convert the money that was collected to fund the Jones Observatory and Planetarium to today's dollars, the facility cost roughly $900,000 to construct. On top of the simpler costs of building and grounds maintenance are the added complexities of maintaining and upgrading both a telescope and a planetarium. With renewed interest and investment from the college and the continued dedication from The Barnard Astronomical Society, this massive undertaking feels less like a moonshot and more like a rigorous hike in the Smokey Mountains that line the Eastern edge of Tennessee.
Recently, the facility and its caretakers crossed the major ridge of upgrading their planetarium system. Taking advantage of advancements in projectors, the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga was able to facilitate the installation of a Digitarium Theta 2, which was adequately bright for the small plaster dome at the Jones Observatory and Planetarium. Keeping with the history, the team at the observatory has forgone the use of artificial landscapes in favor of the silhouette cutout of the Chattanooga skyline that was installed in the dome’s cove decades earlier. Once relegated to the dated, albeit unique, projection of stars from a small optical-mechanical system, students of the college and public visitors alike can now virtually venture to the worlds that they peer at through the telescope upstairs.
The hand-drawn maps of Mars hanging in the library can come to life with the modern data from NASA’s many trips to the red planet. The moons of Jupiter and Saturn, mere dots of light in the slides hanging on the walls, are now three-dimensional moving objects to be explored. Keeping with the spirit of innovation that permeates the place, dedicated volunteers have poured their time and affection into converting the dome to a digital system, and they did so just in time to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Barnard Astronomical Society, which incidentally happened about six months before the opening of the first planetarium in Munich, Germany. While there are still more mountains to climb at the Clarence T. Jones Observatory and Planetarium, they now have bright new stars to guide their way.
To learn more about the history of the Clarence T. Jones Planetarium and how to become involved with the Barnard Astronomical Society, you can visit: https://barnardastronomy.org/