When Parkland College began construction on its current campus in the early 1970’s, the first president of Parkland, William M. Staerkel, envisioned a “Cultural Center” for the Champaign-Urbana public; one part theatre, the other part planetarium. Designs for the William M. Staerkel Planetarium were drafted in the late 1960’s and the building was dedicated in the fall of 1987.

In the 30+ years since opening, the planetarium has evolved alongside technology, replacing analog slides and practical effects with digital projectors and advanced imaging software. Nine computers work in-sync to produce images that can range from a drone view of the Parkland campus to a view of Jupiter’s southern pole. The centerpiece of the dome is a Zeiss M1015 star projector from Germany which is original to the planetarium and was the first of its type to be installed in the western hemisphere. Each of the stars projected on the dome has a dedicated light on the projector, for a total of 5,000 individual lights.

We spoke with planetarium director Erik Johnson to get a behind-the-scenes view of the planetarium’s operations and to experience the vivid imagery that takes you worlds away.

Photo and video by Steven Pratten