By Shane Hengst

Brief History of the Physics Outreach Unit at UNSW

A dedicated astronomy outreach group was established in 2008 within the School of Physics with the aim of promoting UNSW astrophysics during the ‘International Year of Astronomy 2009’ and beyond. Postgraduate students Shane Hengst and Mikayla Keen coordinated the group, supported by Prof. Michael Burton. A small initial budget and cost recovery format provided the opportunity to hire casual postgraduate and undergraduate students to staff events and activities. The coordinators provided training and support to the casual staff as required.
In 2011, the astronomy outreach program transformed into the Physics Outreach Unit with the support from the contemporary Head of School Prof. Richard Newbury. Activity content was and continues to be developed to promote research conducted within the School of Physics. The Unit is currently managed by Shane Hengst (part-time) and is supported by two coordinators (casual). We pool presenters and volunteers from the postgraduate and undergraduate cohort.
The Unit has two inflatable portable planetariums, both analogue and digital systems (See Figure 1), which are invaluable in raising the awareness of physics to the greater community. These portables complement our workshops and events very nicely.

fig 1
Figure 1: StarLab Retro dome housing analogue system (Left) and Digital Portable System (Right). Photos: Shane Hengst

StarLab Retro

The original StarLab has been operating for over 20 years within the School of Physics. We call it an analogue system but it is also referred to as an optical/mechanical system. The main projection system consists of a cylinder drum with “pin-like” holes that are lit from within by a tungsten filament that enables projection of the stars on the inside of the dome (See Figure 1 for the analogue projection system). We also have a red light in operation to enable eyes to adjust to the darkness faster.

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Figure 2: Analogue projection system for StarLab Retro. Photos: Shane Hengst

The ‘StarLab Show’ consists of a tour of the night sky, an explanation of the Earth and Sun system dynamics, some stellar astrophysics and Astronomy vs. Astrology belief systems. The show is easily tailored for a given audience, from pre-school to adults. Figure 3 shows the immersive experience of the StarLab show.

fig 3Figure 3: Inside the dome. Photos: Shane Hengst

We found that the StarLab show is always a hit whenever we have on-campus visits or when we take out on the road. We have travelled around NSW with it: from far north as Coffs Harbour; to Albury towards the South; and way out in the west in Dubbo!

Digital Portable Planetarium

A new digital system has been in the works for a number of years. It is now finally coming to fruition and will be active in doing regular shows from this month!

The reason why this has taken so long to get off the ground is simply a monetary aspect. An off-the-shelf digital StarLab currently sells for $49,995USD; however, this is too much for the small budget of the Physics Outreach Unit. Therefore, it was decided to purchase the pieces separately over the years. The digital planetarium consists of the following pieces:

- Inflatable dome (this was actually bought from StarLab)
- A hemispherical lens from Navitar (See Figures 4 & 5)
- A Panasonic laser projector (See Figure 5)
- A MacBook Air | to be the interface to the projector (See Figure 5)
- PA Speaker
- Headset Microphone

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Figure 4: Hemispherical Lens (Navitar). Photo: Shane Hengst
fig 5
Figure 5: Basic setup for digital projection. A Macbook Air is connected (via HDMI) to the laser projector mounted with a hemispherical lens.

The advantage of this setup is to provide a more flexible presentation platform to work with. We can still present the material from the StarLab Retro show but in a more dynamic way; this can include animations and the latest images of celestial objects. Another great feature is that we can play full dome projection movies. For example, the UNSW Physics Outreach Unit has now obtained a license to play Melbourne Planetarium and CAASTRO’s ‘Capturing the Cosmos’, narrated by Geoffrey Rush. See the Australasian Planetarium Society’s blog for details:

We are looking forward to presenting these new and exciting shows to the school groups and the public in the future! We have already booked in with our strategic partner, Australian Museum, to have the community to experience our digital planetarium shows!

ShaneShane is the Physics Outreach manager at the University of New South Wales in Sydney. His goal is to raise the awareness of science, in particular physics and astronomy, to the community.
He organises physics and astronomical public events, design and deliver scientific workshops, and develop teaching programs targeted at school students. 
Shane likes to do some research and he is currently a part-time PhD student studying debris discs in planetary systems.