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Wetherbee Planetarium one of the most advanced in the nation

Self-taught astronomer Jim Friese stands in the Wetherbee Planetarium in front of a high-tech projection of the planet Mars. While not actually 3-D, the digital images, when projected to the curved interior of the planetarium dome, can be disorienting for first-time viewers.

Self-taught astronomer Jim Friese stands in the Wetherbee Planetarium in front of a high-tech projection of the planet Mars. While not actually 3-D, the digital images, when projected to the curved interior of the planetarium dome, can be disorienting for first-time viewers.

ALBANY -- So where do you go if you're curious about the cosmos but don't know a lot about the stars or planets, don't have a telescope and would like to be as comfortable as you are at home?

A reasonable choice might be Thronateeska Heritage Museum's Wetherbee Planetarium in downtown Albany. A mere three and a half bucks can put you up close and personal with heavenly bodies a million or so light years away.

According to Thronateeska Heritage Museum Executive Director Tommy Gregors, the Wetherbee Planetarium is a 40-foot-wide powder-coated dome, inside of which participants can view recreated planets, stars, galaxies, comets and other cosmic bodies. The planetarium is not to be confused, says Gregors, with an observatory, which is a special structure equipped with a large telescope for viewing real objects in real time.

While not technically "3-D," dynamic images projected to the curved surface of the dome's interior can be disorienting to first-time viewers. It's a world you've never seen in a way you've never thought of seeing it.

"Weather is not an issue," Gregors said. "There's always a clear sky. Inside the dome, we create events you may have to wait months or years to see in nature."

According to Gregors, the original 20-foot planetarium, an "opto-mechanical ball" type built in 1966, was purchased second-hand by Darton College in the 1970s. With a new science museum planned but not completed, an ultra state-of-the-art digital projector was installed in the dome in 2006, providing grand improvements to versatility and programing. Gregors described the installation as a "stopgap" measure until a science museum -- including the larger planetarium dome -- was finished.

"Everything was digital," Gregors said. "Now we had a very bright projector and millions of stars, asteroids, comets and planets. We could go anywhere in the universe."

The system was upgraded further before its 2008 placement in the center of the new 40-foot planetarium dome. According to Gregors, the installation was a pretty big deal, and ranked the Wetherbee facility among the best in the world.

"It was the very first installation of that projector, the most advanced anywhere," he said. "The second projector went to Yale University."

The Wetherbee is certainly a fine planetarium for Jim Friese, an amateur astronomer and part-time employee.

"Now who else gets paid to do their hobby?" Friese asked, a grin on his face.

A California transplant, Friese fell into astronomy in an unexpected way. Back in the Cold War days he was reading about Russian weapons and equipment, he said, and got to the part where nuclear fusion bombs were explained to operate in the same mechanism as the sun. The information sparked him to study the sun itself and led him from there to general astronomy.

When the self-taught stargazer was offered work at the planetarium, he jumped at the chance, seeing it, he said, as an opportunity for greater knowledge.

"I already knew of lot of stuff," Friese said, "but this (opportunity) kind of pressed me into knowing more. And it was a chance to share what I know with the public. On top of that, without the staff at Thronateeska, I could never do my own projects."

Friese's first real speaking engagement at his new job was a planned 45-minute address to Craig Flowers' class from Darton College. Friese said he ran out of material after just 15 minutes.

"I had to ad lib the rest of it," he said.

For those newly interested in astronomy, Friese suggests starting with a simple study of the sun, as he did, or following the constellations in the night sky. Telescopes shorter than 5 or 6 inches are likely to disappoint, he advises, though a good pair of binoculars can make a good beginning.

A constant challenge for the Wetherbee Planetarium is bringing in new customers, Gregors said, though recent price restructuring has provided a dramatic increase in attendance. Gregors said that Thronateeska and the planetarium fit closely within the national model of $6 average income -- including gift shop purchases -- from each attendee. The problem is the average $22 cost for each one of those ticket-holders.

"The reality here is, to generate new revenue we can't charge a high ticket price to get people to come to (the planetarium), Gregors said. "$3.50 is a real bargain."