Astrobiology Brings Strange Visitor To ACA

Tazwell Brandabur

The Charter Features

21 Oct. 2019.

On October 21st, Mr Holland’s PE class found the gym invaded by a faintly humming silver dome, 20 feet in diameter and 10 feet high. Fortunately, this was no alien invasion of ACA, but rather the Starlab, a mobile observatory and planetarium, brought in by Mr. Lancaster’s Astrobiology class to teach constellations and planetary science.

“Constellations serve as a…sort of map that astronomers use to locate certain phenomena in the night sky,” stated Mr. Lancaster, “so having some familiarity with what those are and where they are is good.”  

Securing this familiarity for students, however, can be hard. Astronomy is difficult to teach in the classroom, mainly because most teaching media (like screens or whiteboards) are flat, and the sky is not. As such, any illustration of the stars presented on a flat surface  gives a flawed representation, — much the way a two dimensional map of the world shows Greenland as larger than Australia, while a globe will show the correct proportions. Projecting the astronomy curriculum onto a curved medium shows students the stars accurately, giving the students an understanding of the real world, rather than a conjectural one.

Normally, this kind of specialty projection is done in a planetarium, a dome shaped theatre often housed at colleges or observatories.

The imposing Zeiss projector, used in conventional planetariums. Image courtesy Wikimedia commons.

The dome shape of the roof provides a massive screen that surrounds viewers, requiring purpose-made projectors (below) to ensure images meant for flat screens don’t warp in the planetarium.

Mr. Lancaster has used planetariums in the past to teach classes similar to astrobiology, but his usual pick, the Haggart Observatory, is under repair. Even were the observatory functional, he notes, “having the field trip come to you is a lot easier.”

Enter Starlab.

Although Starlabs are an order of magnitude cheaper than conventional planetariums, they are still a major investment. Starlab’s website puts the lowest price point for the dome, projector, and curriculum at over thirty thousand dollars, a substantial investment, particularly for a small school like ACA. Fortunately, the portability of a Starlab allows sharing between schools.

Mr. Lancaster coordinated with the Multnomah Education Service District (MESD) to arrange for the Starlab to come to ACA.  

Lafcadio Adams, a teacher at MESD, brought the Starlab to ACA, set it up, and taught the modules once the kids were inside. She notes that Starlab always has a pretty positive reception. “Students in general react favorably to the StarLab experience. Most think just crawling inside is pretty cool.”

This seems to hold true for ACA. On their way out of the gym, Deon Best, Alonzo Anderon, and Jack Taggart all agreed that it was an asset to the astrobiology curriculum. Jack said, “I hope it comes back every year, so more people can see it.”

Although the starlab was open to the public, only students who were on campus during the times it was shown, and who did not have classes at that time, were allowed into the shadowy dome, significantly constricting the number who were able to enjoy it.

Hope is not lost, however, for those who couldn’t make it this time. Mrs. Bloemer “is so excited about it,” says Mr. Lancaster, “that she’s willing to have Starlab come back later in the year if there’s a demand for it.”


Anderson, Alonzo. Personal interview. 21 Oct. 2019.

Adams, Lafcadio. Personal interview. 21 Oct. 2019.

Best, Deon. Person Poll. 21 Oct. 2019.

Adams, Lafcadio. “Re. A Question about starlab.” Received by Tazwell Brandabur. 14 Oct. 2019.

Lancaster, Michael. Personal interview. 16 Oct. 2019.

Taggart, Jack. Personal interview. 16 Oct. 2019.

Digital Starlab Portable Planetarium Price List. Starlab Website. 17 Jul. 2017. Accessed 20 Oct. 2019.

Szakonyi, Mark. “Science First wins $2M federal contract.” Biz Journals. 4 Oct. 2010. Accessed Oct. 19th 2019

“Why starlab?” Starlab Website. 2019. Accessed 16 Oct. 2019.

Starlab- astronomy in the classroom.” Multnomah Education Service district. 2015. Accessed 15 Oct. 2019.

DeVito, Maria. “$1.4 million planetarium coming to The Works.” The Newark Advocate. 4 May. 2017. Accessed 20 Oct. 2019.