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East Bay Astronomical Society mobilizes to repair the Zeiss Universarium

on November 5, 2015

The Zeiss Universarium Mark VIII star projector looks like a sleepy robot, dotted with a dozen eyes. It sits at the center of the planetarium at Oakland’s Chabot Space & Science Center, the state-of-the-art astronomy complex nestled in Oakland Hills.Thanks to an advanced fiber-optic projection system designed by the German company Carl Zeiss, the Universarium is able to project over 9,000 stars onto the planetarium dome with impressive clarity.

“It looks like real stars,” says Gerald McKeegan, an astronomer at Chabot and board member of the East Bay Astronomical Society. “You see things the way you would see them out in the mountains or the way people could see the sky 1,000 years ago.”

But the Zeiss has been sitting unused for nearly 10 years. Zeiss projectors are not only costly to install, but also to maintain. According to McKeegan, Chabot’s maintenance budget was redistributed during the 2006 recession, and they could no longer afford to keep up with maintenance costs. As a result, the projector developed mechanical problems. When the planetarium’s show presenter stepped down to pursue his PhD, Chabot decided to retire the projector.  The Zeiss officially shut down in 2006.

Since then, the projector has remained dormant and today would require a professional analysis, repair and mechanical upgrade to work again. “Just like any other complex mechanical instrument, if it sits unused, it’s not very happy,” says Richard Ozer, treasurer of the East Bay Astronomical Society.

Now, thanks to the efforts of the East Bay Astronomical Society, the Zeiss might illuminate Chabot’s planetarium again. The volunteer-run astronomy group recently launched the first phase of a fundraising campaign to save the Zeiss. They hope to collect $25,000 in donations via YouCaring, a crowd-funding site designed to help charitable projects raise money.

The first batch of funds will pay for an analysis and diagnosis by a technician from Seiler, a company that installs and repairs Zeiss projectors. The diagnosis “includes reconnecting all components,” says McKeegan, including a control system that was disconnected and put in storage. “$25,000 covers the cost of having a Seiler technician come out to Oakland for a complete diagnostic check,” he says.

The diagnosis is the only way to confirm the final cost of repair, but McKeegan estimates that it will cost between $150,000 and $350,000. “Based on the outcome of the diagnostic check, the next phase involves replacement of the control system and software, cleaning the instrument, replacement of lamps and filters, plus other repairs that may be needed,” says McKeegan. “Seiler will also upgrade the system to the full Model IX configuration, which involves replacing the dimming systems, lamp ignition units, and other hardware.”

After the diagnosis, the East Bay Astronomical Society will launch the second phase of the funding campaign. They hope to raise the full amount needed to bring the Zeiss back into action.

The Zeiss Universarium Mark VIII was custom-built for Chabot at a cost of around $3.5 million when the center relocated to the Oakland hills in 2000. These projectors need to be designed based on the specific dimensions of a planetarium, adding to the cost and complexity of each project.

With it’s new home in Oakland, the Zeiss at Chabot became one of only four of its kind in the United States. It was a big deal for the East Bay to own one: Chabot joined other prestigious Zeiss Universarium owners like the Hayden Planetarium in New York and the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles. But, says Ozer, “Ours is the only one that is not functioning.”

The Chabot’s planetarium currently uses digital projectors, but McKeegan and Ozer both agree that, while the digital projectors work just fine, their projections just aren’t comparable in clarity and precision to the Zeiss, thanks to it’s high-quality fiber optics and glass. “The Zeiss will project everything, including the faintest stars,” says McKeegan.

McKeegan says that the projector is a special treat for East Bay residents, especially children. He said that the Zeiss projects a sky full of stars, unadulterated by light pollution, and that kind of night sky is rarely available for kids in urban environments.

The projector also has a number of special functions, including the ability to zoom into images of planets and move around the night sky. It can even show viewers what the night sky looked like in the past, or how it will look the future.

Representatives from the Chabot Space Space & Science Center declined to comment on the fundraising campaign, specifying that the East Bay Astronomical Society is taking this on as an independent initiative. In addition to bringing the Zeiss back into working condition, the society members would also like to replace the control panel with a more modern one. “We noticed a couple things weren’t working,” says McKeegan. “So we decided that we would take this project on. The East Bay Astronomical Society is going to do it, and we will turn it back over to Chabot as a fully restored instrument.”

“The motivation here is that it is a very unique and rare piece of equipment,” says Ozer. “We don’t have anything else close to its quality and capability. So we’ve always advocated for it’s continued use.”

Since its launch in mid-October, the fundraising campaign has raised $2,891, but Ozer says the big push will come in the next couple months. On October 26, the campaign received the biggest donation yet: $1,000 from the Zeiss Planetarium Division itself. With the funds came a note of encouragement: “Good luck with your fundraising! We hope that our donation will help to reach the goal and would be very happy to bring the Starball back to life.”

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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