Earlier in the year, it was announced that Youngstown State University’s Ward Beecher Planetarium received funding through a cooperative agreement with NASA, to work with Southern Illinois University Edwardsville on CosmoQuest.
“CosmoQuest was developed in 2012,” said Dr. Patrick Durrell, Professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at YSU. “We call it an online research facility. It’s a website, cosmoquest.org, where you can learn astronomy, you can take classes, you can find materials for teachers, and more.”
One of the things that makes CosmoQuest fairly unique is the idea of citizen science—making the average person into a helpful contributor to science.
“There are little projects where you can get the everyday public involved,” said Dr. Durrell. “They can go online with a little bit of training and they can take part in science. So CosmoQuest was sort of developed on all of those things, to not only—like many other places—try to educate people about astronomy and space science, but also to get people involved.”
The full grant over five years totals around $11.5 million, of which YSU is receiving $650,000. The funding has gone toward new computer work stations, render farms, full-dome cameras, animation equipment, and an additional member of the planetarium team, digital content designer Alexa Alpern.
With these new and updated resources, the planetarium can now produce more content for the planetarium and for the CosmoQuest project.
“Instead of creating one show in two years, we’re going to start creating shorter things and more of them, because some of these shows for the high-end systems can cost $8-10 thousand each,” said Dr. Durrell.
What this means is that the Ward Beecher Planetarium will create a variety of short videos and animations that other planetariums will be able to use and incorporate into their own shows for free. Many other planetariums don’t have the money to buy new shows or the equipment to create full shows, and that’s where CosmoQuest comes in.
“NASA wants to get the word out,” said Dr. Durrell. “Science isn’t really science until you let somebody know about it. Our part of the project is getting the word out through the planetarium.”
Fully equipped with updated technology and experienced faculty and staff, we can expect some great new educational content from the Ward Beecher Planetarium in the coming months and years, thanks to funding from NASA and this partnership with CosmoQuest.
Originally from Ocean City, Maryland, Alexa Alpern holds a bachelor’s degree in applied media arts and computer animation from Edinboro University. The best part? She is the newest member of our Ward Beecher Planetarium team!
As part of the WB Planetarium’s recent grant with NASA and CosmoQuest, Alexa has been hired as the Digital Content Designer and Animator. She creates and alters digital content that can be displayed inside full-dome planetariums. “There will be2D and 3D animated pieces,” said Alexa, “meaning some are CGI like How to Train Your Dragon or Shrek, and some are 2D like Beauty and the Beast or Mulan.”
Not only does she create animations and original artwork, she also edits and composites photos from telescopes and other images that must be altered for planetariums.
"Currently for CosmoQuest, I will be beginning to create and edit a new trailer to represent the CosmoQuest project,” said Alexa. “Throughout this project I will be video compositing and editing and utilizing animations to complete the short representative film."
CosmoQuest is a great resource for planetariums around the world because people like Alexa can create planetarium-formatted content for anyone to use at no cost. Full-dome shows can be incredibly expensive, so having this sort of open source library of content is an excellent educational resource.
While studying animation at Edinboro University, Alexa worked together with planetarium director Dr. David Hurd to recreate an original slide-based planetarium showin a new digital format. The show, The World at Night, was fully produced and published and made appearances at two Great Lakes Planetarium Association (GLPA) conferences as well as in-house public showings throughout the year. After that first show was created, she gained a lot of interest in developing more full-dome content.
No stranger to hard work, Alexa was a Zumba instructor and she was in Olympic figure skating training for 13 years, training under Olympic medalists Ron Ludington and Barbara Roles Williams! She also keeps up with her own artwork; she’s been working on her own animated television series in her free time.
Last year, Alexa won the George H. Nicholas Memorial Animation Scholarship for Excellence in Animation. To see some of her artwork, awards, and professional experience, check out her portfolio!