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CHEROKEE, Iowa | Sanford Museum and Planetarium Director Linda Burkhart is expecting a lot of dropped jaws and perhaps even some audible gasps in the downtown Cherokee facility later this month.

That sort of expressiveness can happen with people, Burkhart said, when the sole Iowa planetarium west of Interstate 35 is updated with the first new projector since 1951.

"This one can do so much more. I can show them action out in the universe. The original (projector) only did stars," Burkhart said.

The Sanford Museum will unveil the new SciDome projector inside the planetarium dome on Jan. 20. The Spitz SciDome IQ 2400 projector has replaced the A-1 projector, which is also another Spitz product from 1951. There will be a variety of public shows that day, giving people a sample of what the new system has to offer.

Burkhart said the nearly seven-decades-old projector had tailed off in quality, and was quit being 15 months ago. Summarizing the quality of the two projectors on a 1-to-10 scale, she put the new one at 10 and the outmoded one at a two. That old Spitz won't be pitched out, but is now a new museum relic.

The projector is coming as part of a $1 million Sanford Museum renovation project. About $860,000 of that has been raised, Burkhart said.

About $800,00 has been directed to the addition of an elevator, while the projector cost $205,000.

Jan Cook, a retired teacher who lives in Cherokee, goes to the museum about once a month, but more when grandchildren come around. During the recent holiday period, Cook went with a 7-year-old granddaughter from Minneapolis, and they wandered into the planetarium, and so got a quick show by one of the workers.

"My granddaughter was open-mouthed...It is fantastic, and I've just had a little sampling of it," Cook said.

After the SciDome opening, Sanford officials will be offering public programs every Sunday and Wednesday, plus programs for groups and schools during the week by reservation. That is a big step up from having planetarium public programs only the last Sunday of each month.

The only public planetariums outside college campuses in Iowa are in Des Moines, Waterloo and Cherokee, which is by far the smallest town, with a population of 5,253. Burkhart has been director of the museum since 1991, or 50 years after the quest to build a museum in Cherokee began.

The museum was built from a family trust fund left in 1941 by W.A. and Maude Sanford, of Cherokee. The first planetarium in Iowa opened in the Sanford in 1951, and since, Burkhart said, "We have tried to maintain our good reputation in the state."

She added, "In her will, (Maude Sanford) said it had to be free and open to the public," so the museum only takes goodwill offerings to this day.

The planetarium  holds about 25 adults or 35 children on benches, who scan upward toward projected images on the dome that has 20-foot diameter. Burkhart said the museum gets about 25,000 visitors annually, including 6,000 students from schools in a 60-mile radius of Cherokee. She expects those numbers will go up in 2018 once word moves about SciDome.

"The community is very aware and anticipating it," Burkhart said.

Burkhart loves what the new projector can do, and showed many elements over 30 minutes in an interview. One piece included how the night sky will rise and fall on the Jan. 20 opening day.

The projector has programs in three different subject areas, with astronomy, layered earth and human anatomy. The images are fitted to show through a modern fish-eye lens.

Burkhart said people who have seen the prior projector just show stars in the night sky will now be able to explore constellations, planets and galaxies. She showed highlighted constellations of Draco, Cassiopeia, Ursa Major and Ursa Minor.

With the layered earth piece, people will see land formations, sea floors, plate tectonics and other elements. Along with the visuals, the music along with the new projected shows also will pop for the Sanford patrons.

"We had a little stereo tape we played before," Burkhart said.

Cook expects more people will visit Cherokee for the Sanford planetarium.

"It has so much potential. I am hoping it opens a lot of avenues," she said.


County and education reporter

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