Sunday, July 13

WILLIAMSTOWN — While there are plenty of stars shining on stage at the Williamstown Theater Festival this summer, even bigger stars are appearing twice weekly in a much more intimate setting. And these stars are millions — if not billions — of years old.

Inside the Hopkins Observatory on the Williams College campus — just across Main Street from WTF, the Milham Planetarium and Mehlin Museum of Astronomy hosts a free show every Tuesday and Thursday at 8:30 p.m. through Aug. 7.

The planetarium boasts one of the top technical tools available for astronomical images: The Zeiss Skymaster projector was installed three years ago, gifted to the college by Williams College President Morton Shapiro and the Class of 1958. The previous projector had been installed in 1963, and before that, since the observatory was built in 1836, the stars were actually pasted on the ceiling.

The Hopkins Observatory, the building that houses the Milham Planetarium, is the oldest extant astronomical observatory in the United States, said Jay M. Pasachoff, Williams' professor of astronomy and director of the Hopkins Observatory.

It was built by hand over two years beginning in 1836 by Mathematics and Philosophy Professor Albert Hopkins, brother of then Williams College President Mark Hopkins, and some of his students. Some of the original equipment used in the observatory is still in the museum.

In 1852, the firm of Alvan Clark in Cambridgeport built a seven-inch refracting telescope encased in brass, which was restored for the observatory's sesquicentennial. The domed roof of the observatory can be shifted using the original hand crank to allow the telescope to view any sector of the night sky. The telescope still works.

"It's a real jewel of a planetarium," Pasachoff said.

The dome-ceiling room can hold about 30 people.

"It's really quite amazing," said Katherine Dupre, a Williams astronomy student and galaxy guide during the planetarium shows. "Definitely no other place around like it."

She said the projector allows the audience to view the night sky as it appears from different locations on Earth at different times in the past and in the future, the different colors of the stars, and even the paths of the other planets.

"With our new projector, the stars show their actual colors that reveal their temperatures, and we can see how the planets move in strange ways in the skies over the years," Pasachoff said. "And we can go thousands of years in the past or thousands of years in the future."

The planetarium is a valuable educational tool, not just for Williams College, but for schools around the region, Pasachoff said.

"We educate people in the Berkshires about different events that happen in the sky, and tell them stories and interesting facts about the universe and the stars that otherwise people wouldn't know," Dupre said.

Recently, the officers of the International Planetarium Society paid a visit to the Hopkins Observatory for a look.

Wednesday, pre-schoolers from the Oakhill Children's Center in Pownal, Vt., got to see the stars close up.

"This is a good way to get outside of the 'purple bubble' and really share what you've learned at Williams with the rest of the community," Dupre said.

People that visit the facility include school groups, summer camps, families that come with their kids, students coming from campus, local teachers' groups, and people who just want to see what's inside the intriguing little building, Dupre said.

She noted that when she gave her first show, she "fell in love with it. I was really excited about doing it."

Haley Spencer, a preschool teacher at Oakhill Children's Center, said her 16 students were enthralled by the sights they witnessed at the planetarium Wednesday.

"We've recently been talking about the sky and space, and it just fit right in with what we were learning," Spencer said. "It was fun. It was a really nice first experience for the kids. Everything was very clear and easy to see."

She noted that the kids also enjoyed seeing the tools astronomers used in past centuries to study the stars in the adjoining museum space.

Pasachoff noted that there are abbreviated, more basic shows designed for the younger audiences, and longer, more complex presentations for adult observers.

The museum and planetarium open at 8:10 p.m. Admission is free. For reservations, which are recommended, call (413) 597-2188. Others will be admitted as space permits. Large groups should call for special appointments.

The shows are designed and given by Williams College astronomy students Charles Cao, Katie Dupre, and Marcus Freeman, and Keck Northeast Astronomy Consortium exchange student Matthew Baldwin.

To reach Scott Stafford: sstafford@berkshireeagle.com, (413) 664-4995.