Hidden Gems: The Mont Alto planetarium

The inflated dome of the Mont Alto planetarium.

About 30 adults can gather in the planetarium for each show to learn about the cosmos, how humans perceive light or any number of other subjects.

Credit: Kim Herrmann

"Hidden Gems" is a new ongoing series highlighting many of the places and experiences available across Penn State to the campus and local communities.

MONT ALTO, Pa. — Several times each semester, visitors are invited to explore the stars as Mont Alto's inflatable planetarium is unfurled for the campus and community. Dozens of people are welcomed into the dome to learn about the universe together. 

The planetarium is a passion project from Associate Professor Kim Herrmann, who runs the shows within the dome and offers virtual talks and other events to encourage an interest in astronomy. She sets up the dome and its equipment for each show from a large duffel bag, a fan and a projector from a case the size of a carry-on suitcase and then inflates the dome when it's time to give a presentation. She wanted to have an avenue to showcase astronomy to the local community, she said, and an inflatable planetarium had seemed like a great way to do it. 

"The dome is roughly 12 feet high at the highest point and 19 and a half feet in diameter," Herrmann said. "It's supposed to seat about 45 adults. In November 2023, I got about 30 in.” 

The planetarium is a Digitarium Iota model, and when the dome is deflated, Herrmann said, it fits into a large rolling duffel bag. Once it’s set up, though, it can offer an impressive show. Attendees gather on the floor or on chairs inside the dome, and she starts up one of the shows she’s downloaded and prepared. Herrmann uses the planetarium to teach visitors about the science and mythology of a nighttime sky from a variety of cultures, including Native American, Hindu and Egyptian in addition to the standard Greek and Roman stories. 

“I always love sharing astronomy with people,” Herrmann said. “Astronomy is one of those things that really excites people. As a physicist and astronomer, if you walk into a room, when you say ‘physics,’ people tend to shy away. With astronomy, they all perk up.” 

The dome can also project shows related to other studies, Herrmann said, including an exploration of the human eye and how we perceive light. 

Since the planetarium was purchased in 2017, Herrmann has given more than 30 shows on the Mont Alto campus and a few more in the community. Many of the attendees are families with young children, Herrmann said, along with a handful of Penn State students. Hundreds of attendees have sat in on an exploration of space and science within the dome in that time, she said, and she'd love to bring more visitors in. 

"It doesn't get out as often as I would like," Herrmann said. "I'm the only one who uses it. I'd love to find some students or to train some other faculty to use it. It contains lots of information and lots of entertaining ways to convey that information." 

The planetarium was packed away in 2020 due to the pandemic and didn't reopen again until late 2022. In the interim, Herrmann launched a virtual planetarium series with occasional guest speakers. The virtual talks have continued even after the in-person planetarium shows picked back up again, Herrmann said, with at least one scheduled per semester. 

The Spring 2024 virtual planetarium show will be 7:30 to 8:30 p.m. on Monday, Feb. 12, and the next on-campus shows are scheduled for 7 to 7:45 p.m. and 8 to 8:45 p.m. on April 25 and 26. Other evening events, including “star parties,” also are available throughout the semester, starting after spring break this semester. 

All Zoom recordings are recorded and posted online for anyone who wasn't able to attend.