North York planetarium gives us back the stars


It's dark in the York Learning Center planetarium, with the vast majority of the light coming from the star projections that speckle the concave interior of the room's domed ceiling.

It's what the night sky looked like 2,000 years ago, before humans figured out how to light up the world, says Todd Ullery as he controls the big sphere in the middle of the planetarium that's projecting the stars onto the ceiling.

"This is what the night sky looks like in York," he continues, turning up the ambient lighting around the planetarium's edges, which makes it all but impossible to see some of the dimmer stars.

After a moment's consideration, he decides, "That's being generous," and turns the light up some more. Only the biggest, brightest stars — the seven in the Big Dipper and the three that comprise the Summer Triangle, for some notable examples — can easily be picked out.

To really get a good view of what's out there, he says, one has to get a way away from major — or even minor — cities. While John C. Rudy County Park in Manchester Township still does experience some light pollution thanks to being in the northeastern U.S., where the concentration of cities has made it inescapable, it's still a relatively good place to view the night sky, says Ullery, a volunteer who runs presentations at the planetarium.

Stargaze: And the public is invited to join the members of the York County Astronomical Society at the observatory in the park from 8 to 10 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 12. The planet Saturn — named after the Roman god who also lends his name to the day of the week the event will be held on, coincidentally — will make a special guest appearance; it should be visible above the horizon that night.

You can bring your own telescope — any half-decent hobby one should be able to make visible the rings of Saturn — or you can use the bigger one the society has at the observatory. That one will get an even better view of the celestial body, showing the gas giant's cloudy exterior, Ullery says.

He says they put on events like this about once a month, with members of the society on hand to show people what's what in the sky and to teach them how to use telescopes. They get a fair amount of people who regularly enjoy looking up at the heavens, he says, but they hope to help some greener stargazers, too.

"We also get people whose Uncle Dave just gave them a telescope and they don't know how to use it," Ullery says.

What you can see: In the planetarium, which has been in the York Learning Center in North York since the building was still Central York High School, Ullery gives examples of stuff you might see in the night sky. He has the lights back down very low, the star projector on and a red-arrow laser pointer in hand.

He uses the laser to point out how the Big Dipper is part of the larger constellation of Ursa Major, but that these days — he turns the lights back up for a moment, showing again how we've made the sky brighter than it used to be — we can't see a lot of the other stars in the constellation that aren't as bright.

He does the same with a few other constellations, showing that while "a little imagination" is required to gestalt them into swans or eagles, it's much more apparent how people came to trace these patterns in the sky when more stars were visible.

"The ancient Greeks weren't all that crazy," he says.

It's just that now many of those tertiary- and quaternary-brightness stars aren't visible to people who live in areas with a highly dense population, he says.

But the good news is he doesn't think interest in stargazing has dwindled in recent years.

After all, simple human curiosity — the thirst to know what's out there — will always remain.

"I think it's actually increased," he says. There's more information available to the common person than at any other time in history, he said.

The planetarium, located at 301 E. Sixth Ave., is open to the public about once a month and can be rented out for private events at various other times.

The next public day is Saturday, Sept. 19. Ullery will put on a show geared toward kids at 2 p.m. and one for a more general audience at 7 p.m.

— Reach Sean Philip Cotter at