09 November 2023 | Story Prof Matie Hoffman

A decade ago, the former Lamont-Hussey Observatory in Bloemfontein became Southern Africa’s first digital planetarium. Thanks to a collaboration between the University of the Free State (UFS), the Mangaung Metropolitan Municipality, the Department of Science and Innovation, and the Free State Province – as well as donations from trusts, foundations, and businesses – the project has grown and thrived.

Many different shapes, one place

The Naval Hill Planetarium was established in the old Lamont-Hussey Observatory. After the closure of the astronomical observatory, the buildings were refurbished and used by PACOFS as the Observatory Theatre. When the site became available again, it was envisioned to turn it into a planetarium. After many years of hard work, the newly refurbished buildings were opened in 2013 as the Naval Hill Planetarium – the first digital planetarium in Africa south of the Sahara. 

The decade has seen many changes on the site of the former Lamont-Hussey Observatory, founded by the University of Michigan in 1927 to study double stars through the largest refracting telescope in the Southern Hemisphere. Improvements include the conversion of the old telescope building into a modern digital planetarium, the refurbishment of the structure of the old Lamont telescope and its installation as a display outside the old telescope dome, an observing platform, and a new hall for environmental education. The planetarium and the hall are now known as the Centre for Earth and Space, and developments are continuing.

Partners who have supported the project include the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH), the University of Michigan, Old Mutual, Sun International, the Hermann Ohlthaver Trust, ArcelorMittal, the Joan St Leger Lindbergh Charitable Trust, and the CB van Wyk Gesinstrust. In 2022, the Raubex Group and First Technology supported the University of the Free State to upgrade the planetarium’s projection system. Volunteers, including the Friends of the Boyden Observatory and the Naval Hill Planetarium, as well as the Friends of Franklin, have played an invaluable role in supporting and developing this community asset. The planetarium is managed by the Department of Physics at the University of the Free State.

A time to celebrate

During November and December 2023, the planetarium’s first decade will be celebrated with events and special shows, including the South African premier of the AMNH full-dome film, Worlds Beyond Earth. The board of the Southern African Large Telescope (SALT) – the largest single optical telescope in the Southern Hemisphere – will attend the premiere. Many international partners are involved in SALT, and AMNH is one of the shareholders in the SALT Foundation. As part of the partnership between the AMNH and SALT, AMNH provides sponsorship for education and outreach efforts in South Africa. The Naval Hill Planetarium benefits from this initiative and receives content for the planetarium in the form of AMNH full-dome films.

In addition to regular school shows, there will be two public shows every Saturday in November and December – one show in English and one in Afrikaans. In December, there will be additional shows for children. Bookings for shows should be done through Computicket, click here to book. The planetarium can accommodate group bookings and functions (enquiries at +2 51 401 9751 or ficky@ufs.ac.za).

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