Education Northern New England

Emera Astronomy Center Draws Stargazers

by Tori Britton

The new Emera Astronomy Center at the University of Maine is helping people see stars — as well as asteroids, comets, and far away galaxies. Designed by WBRC Architects Engineers, in partnership with planetarium expert Kasian of Vancouver, Canada, the 7,400sf Emera Astronomy Center is delivering an impressive experience to space enthusiasts of all ages, from pre-K children to graduate students.

In operation since late 2014, Emera Astronomy Center delivers its initial “wow” through the building’s intriguing exterior. Conceived by project architect Kristian Kowal of WBRC, the design, he says, “serves as an invitation to open one’s mind and enter a new realm.” The cylindrical side of the building, which houses the planetarium theater, is an asymmetrical mix of textures and materials. The walls create a suspension of disbelief by appearing to defy gravity, and signify a lean toward the future.

Entrances to both the building and the theater are designed as “portals” to facilitate the illusion that one is passing from Earth to the outer reaches of space. In the lobby, the space theme continues with metallic floors, dramatic dark blue walls, and an undulating metal ceiling with star-like light fixtures.

Scott Mitchell, space science educator at Emera Astronomy Center, says the new facility is attracting many more student groups and families. “It’s encouraging to see people so excited about the building and the quality of our new shows,” he says.

These shows take place in the new Maynard F. Jordan planetarium, an ADA-accessible theatre that seats 50. Unlike the old planetarium, the new 33-foot dome is tilted 22 degrees for more comfortable viewing, and a state-of-the-art Definiti projection system allows visitors to be fully immersed in the theater experience.

With the new technology, the theater can now show Imax-type shows, 3D films, as well as project high-definition, scientifically accurate models of stars, planets, and galaxies from a host of vantage points. “It has really opened things up in terms of what students can explore,” Mitchell says.

In the adjacent 618sf observatory, a whole new level of observational astronomy is taking place on clear nights, thanks to a new 20-inch PlaneWave CDK 20 telescope. Located on the darkest corner of campus, the observatory has significantly less light pollution than UMaine’s former facility, due in part to an innovative system of colored exterior lights. Red LEDs illuminate the parking lot when the observatory is in use, preserving the dark-sky critical to enhanced stargazing, while still making the observatory safely accessible to student pedestrians.

Safely accommodating large groups of visitors, often schoolchildren, was also an important design consideration, so the chosen site has ample space for parking and visitor buses. “At our old facility,” Mitchell says, “school buses would basically block the road to let the kids out. Now we have a nice carved-out area where the buses pull up.”

The facility also includes a multipurpose classroom used both for astronomy classes and hands-on activities for visiting school children. The lobby was sized for use of portable planetariums, opening another opportunity for two simultaneous classroom experiences.

Other user- and staff-friendly features include multiple ticketing points-of-sale, a display case for souvenir merchandise, and the ability for groups to enter and leave from dedicated entrances.

Good stewardship of resources is very important at the University of Maine as well as to the project donors — including an anonymous giver who donated $3.2 million of the $5.2 million project costs, and energy company Emera of Maine, which made a $1 million naming gift. To create a sustainable facility, the design team chose a closed-loop geothermal HVAC system with electric thermal storage ─ the first such system at UMaine ─ which offered the best long-term energy efficiency. Targeted for LEED Silver certification, Emera Astronomy Center also incorporates LED lighting, a highly efficient building envelope, and extensive use of local materials. The project was constructed by Nickerson & O’Day.

Tori Britton is marketing director at WBRC Architects Engineers.