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The Student News Site of University of North Alabama

The Flor-Ala

The Student News Site of University of North Alabama

The Flor-Ala

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Planetarium Public Nights increase in attendance

Whitney Veazey

The University of North Alabama’s Planetarium and Observatory has been having increased attendance at their weekly Public Nights. 

Dr. Melvin Blake has served as the planetarium and observatory director since 2008. The Public Nights, however, began long before Blake became a faculty member. 

“The planetarium was built in the mid- to late-1960s,” said Blake. “The observatory was built, and then the planetarium was added later. [The shows] have been going on since the facility was open. That’s really what planetariums do. They make a great lab for astronomy classes, but they also all do outreach programs for the public.”

Public Nights take place every Tuesday night at 7 p.m. A typical Public Night begins in the planetarium, where a simulated view of the night sky is projected on the ceiling. Blake talks to attendees about the various constellations and planets that are visible, as well as any upcoming events, like a meteor shower or eclipse. While showing the constellations, Blake makes sure to tell the stories associated with each, which allows visitors to get an idea of what people used to think when they looked at the night sky. 

Then, if the sky is clear and the weather allows, Blake takes those in attendance to the observatory to look through the telescope and see one or more objects, such as the moon, a planet or a star cluster. If time allows, the group gets to look at more than one, but with recent attendance trends, they normally only have time to view one. 

If the weather is poor and does not allow for viewing, Blake shows attendees a planetarium show instead. He has a number of informational videos that have been developed to show in planetariums that cover a variety of topics. 

“Lately, we’ve had increased attendance,” Blake said. “The observatory can only fit about 15 people comfortably, so when we have 25 or 30, what we do is we show a video, and one group observes while the other group watches the video, and then we switch up. This lets us do larger groups.”

Blake is very pleased with the large number of people who have been attending his Public Nights recently. 

“We’ve really been wanting to get greater attendance,” Blake said. “I think one of the reasons for it is that I have some really good volunteers working with me right now that are helping with the social media presence and giving me advice on how to reach people. One of them is very good with graphics and posters, so they made posters for some of our events as well and put them up around campus. That’s been a really big help. We’re getting better at getting the word out that we’re around and that people can come to visit.” 

Blake currently has two volunteers, Emilia Abts and Madi Guth, as well as a former volunteer who is now on the payroll, Harmonie Wildharber. He greatly appreciates their help and enjoys getting to work with students, both during Public Nights and otherwise.

“They’ve been fantastic,” Blake said. “There’s a lot of little things to running a planetarium well, and I can farm out some of those little things that need to be done. Some of these things, the students are simply better at than I am, like social media. I’m still figuring out Instagram, whereas students live on Instagram. Some of them have skills that I’m not very good at.”

Abts thinks that getting the chance to work with Blake is an excellent opportunity, one that she finds fun and fulfilling. 

“It’s been a privilege,” said Abts. “It’s not really a common thing to have a planetarium and observatory [at a college], so it’s been really great. He’s awesome and is willing to help with anything. He wants us to succeed, so he tries his best to let us get all the experience we can. It’s been a great experience.”

While volunteering, Abts checks people in at the door and facilitates payments for entry. She also helps people into the observatory and aids Blake in moving the telescope if needed. Volunteer assistance in these areas is needed, especially with the recent increase in attendance.

For most of the Public Nights, the ratio of students to members of the community that attend is roughly even. 

“It’s something that I’m really happy about, because if I had my way, every student that attended UNA would come visit at least once,” Blake said. “I’m not going to get 10,000 students visiting, obviously, but it’s nice to see the students come. We have a policy where we don’t charge students for the programs, so it makes a nice hour or so where they can take a break from studying. In particular, I like the fact that we seem to be getting a large number of the international students visiting, which is nice.”

Blake enjoys hearing feedback from those who attend, whether in person or on social media. Most of the feedback he receives is from families, especially those with younger children. 

“The little kids will just blurt it out,” Blake said. “They’ll say, ‘This was awesome!’ as they’re walking out the door. That’s always nice. You never know when you’re going to get a kid hooked on science, so we try our best to do that.”

Those from the community who attend Public Nights also enjoy getting to learn about stars and planets.

“I really enjoyed seeing the stars and learning about them,“ said Garrett Johnson, an attendee. “The professor did a really good job, and I’d recommend it to others.”

UNA students appreciate the opportunity to attend educational events like Public Nights on campus.

“I think it was so cool!” said Charlotte Bellingrath, a UNA student. “My grandfather actually worked with NASA. That’s why I definitely wanted to come over here. I’ll definitely be coming back.”

In the future, Blake hopes to continue to grow his attendance by improving their social media presence. If attendance numbers stay the same or rise, Blake hopes to add another weekly night for shows so each show is not as crowded and those who wish to attend have more opportunities to come. He also hopes to add weekend programs once or twice per month for those who are unable to attend throughout the week. 

Groups, such as student organizations and clubs, are also able to book the planetarium for their own tour that is separate from Public nights, which Blake says not many are aware of. To book the planetarium, simply send Blake an email.

Coming up, the planetarium will be having an event for the partial solar eclipse on Oct. 14. They also have an annual Halloween program, which includes Blake’s “Doomsday” lecture on all of the things in the universe that could kill us at any moment – mostly in jest, because of the low probability of any of the events taking place. Blake and his volunteers dress up for the holiday and give out candy to attendees. 

At the end of the semester, the planetarium holds its Christmas star shows, where they show a video of what the Star of Bethlehem may have been. These are usually held after exams are over, so the general public usually makes up the majority of their attendance for these shows. 

For all information about upcoming Public Nights and other events, go to, or follow the UNA Planetarium and Observatory on Facebook, Instagram (@planetariumuna) and Twitter (@unaplanetarium).

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About the Contributors
Kelley Peters
Kelley Peters, Managing Editor
Kelley is a junior from Tupelo, Miss. who is majoring in English literature with a minor in applied linguistics. She is currently Managing Editor for The Flor-Ala. She has loved reading for as long as she can remember, which developed her love of storytelling and the English language. Her career goal is to become an English professor at a university. She was previously a volunteer writer in the Fall of 2021, became a Staff Writer in January of 2022 and moved to being News Editor in January of 2023.
Whitney Veazey
Whitney Veazey, Chief Photographer
Whitney is a sophomore from Greenville, Ala. She is working towards a BFA with a concentration in photography. Whitney started at The Flor-Ala in Fall 2022 as a staff writer/photographer and is currently serving as chief photographer.

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