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Stars in your eyes

The planetarium at Fayetteville State University undergoes a cosmic makeover that positions it to inspire students of all ages to explore the wonders of their world.


How would you like to take a walk among the stars without ever leaving your seat?
For a nominal fee, no less: $5 for adults, $3 for children. 
You no longer have to drive 74 miles or so to visit Morehead Planetarium at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the state’s best known planetarium. 
Your science adventure awaits right here at Fayetteville State University in a planetarium in the Charles A. Lyons Science Building.
And you could have some fun doing it.
That is the goal of Joe Kabbes, manager of the FSU Planetarium, a state-of-the-art facility that seats 65 and features 10 high-resolution projectors. A computerized system captures the majesty of the stars and combines it with a 6,500-watt sound system that provides an experience that some would say is out of this world.
“I’m just having a lot of fun,” says Kabbes, 68, who arrived at Fayetteville State in 2017. “I’m having a blast.”
Kabbes hosts two Saturday night shows each month for the general public that begin at 7 p.m. Upcoming shows are scheduled for May 13 and 27 and June 10 and 24. After a hiatus in July, the shows will resume in August. Kabbes says he hopes eventually to produce shows weekly.
“What I’m interested in more is promoting the programs and stuff,” Kabbes says. “First off, a lot of people in the community don’t know we’ve got a planetarium, much less this quality of a planetarium. We hope to get some sponsorship maybe and get some shows that people can come in and have a non-scientist view of these shows. 
“We want to be able to increase knowledge in the community of what we do and be able to offer more programs.”
For those Saturday shows, you can find Kabbes performing his wizardry at what he calls his master control unit that steers visitors through the universe.
The 10 4K projectors “put a high number of pixels on our dome,” Kabbes says. 
That produces a vivid, illuminating view of the universe and provides a distinct contrast between the brightness of the stars and planets and the darkness of space.
“Now one of the ways they measure how many pixels are on a dome is how many pixels go from the horizon in the south through the zenith to the horizon in the north. The largest one is 10,000, and that’s up in Edmonton, Canada,” says Kabbes, who also is an astronomy instructor in the FSU department of chemistry and physics. “Ours is 9,200. The difference is the one (dome) in Edmonton is 70 feet across. We’re only 30 feet across, so our pixels are crammed together so we have a higher pixel density than anybody literally in the world.
“Nobody else is crazy enough to put this many 4K projectors in a little space, and that works really well here. It’s pretty cool.”
New bells and whistles
Kabbes is not the only one excited about the planetarium, which closed in 2017 and underwent a $1 million renovation that included updates to the Lyons Science Building. The planetarium had a brief “retro reopening” in November 2019 using the old star ball and a single projector for images, Kabbes says. Those shows continued until the campus closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020. That’s when the 4K projectors and sound system were installed.
From April 2020 through December 2021, the university had virtual planetarium shows on Zoom. Kabbes also took his show on the road, making more than 200 presentations at Cumberland County library branches as part of the NASA@My Library program.
“Lots of miles,” Kabbes recalls.
The planetarium, which is about 40 years old, reopened with all its new bells and whistles on May 15, 2022, for the lunar eclipse.
The renovations were paid for with money from a state bond package issued in 2016, Kabbes says. Additional funding of about $40,000 came from COVID-19 relief funds. 
Two FSU staff members who visited the planetarium for the first time recently were awestruck.
“It just blew my mind,” says Larry Cummings, director of student orientation. “This is one of those features that all schools don’t have. This gets students excited about learning.”
Quierra Luck, FSU media relations coordinator, agrees.
“Our goal is to expand the minds of students in the community,” says Luck. “This planetarium puts us in a league of our own. Honestly, it allows us to reach not only the minds and heights of the galaxy; we’re excited to elevate this class more and can’t wait to see new faces in here and show them the world.”
Students are the stars
At the center of this universe are Kabbes and his students.
At a master control unit that would make “Star Trek” navigator Sulu proud, Kabbes pushes buttons that project different views of the universe, such as how the Earth would look from the dark side of Jupiter or a panoramic view of the constellations.
“We probably have well over a hundred assets (like pictures of videos) that were either provided to us by the vendor or we were able to put together,” says Kabbes, who earned his master’s degree in astronomy from James Cook University in Australia in 2008.
He tries to get students involved in the process, something he began at Harper College in Palatine, Illinois, near Chicago, where he managed the Karl G. Heinze Observatory for about 10 years before coming to FSU.  
“We were the only observatory in the country that was run primarily by middle and high school students,” Kabbes says. “I’m working to get that started up here. I have a couple of students that I am training on how to run the planetarium, and last Saturday’s program was mostly run by one of the high school students. So, I was up here talking, and she was clicking the buttons in the back to make it happen.”
The students — not just those at Fayetteville State but also elementary, middle school and high school students — are enthralled by the planetarium’s shows.
“When we get school groups here, kids are just so excited,” says Kabbes. “We get a lot of feedback from teachers. (One) teacher said all (the students) talked about the entire bus ride was all the cool things we did. 
“We don’t just do the show; we take them out and we have them build little stop rockets and launch them, and they learn a little bit about rockets. We just do all sorts of different little simple things, but they seem to really resonate with kids. They learn some stuff, and they have fun. Hopefully, they don’t even know they’re learning stuff.”
Kabbes says FSU charges $150 for school groups to visit the planetarium. A Saturday afternoon STEAM Team has been open to students in seventh through 12th grades since 2018. (STEAM stands for science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics.)
“Some of our STEAM Team students have assisted with building various projects, such as the planetarium lighting system,” Kabbes says. “We call it STEAM because it rhymes with ‘team’ and also adds some art stuff. A lot of people don’t appreciate that there’s a huge amount of art in science and engineering. There’s an artistic component to a lot of things, plus a huge amount of creativity even to stuff you don’t see.
“That’s the fun thing — helping students to understand that they can be creative and innovative and make things that maybe nobody else could come up with.”
One of those students is 14-year-old Julianna Jones, a high school freshman who is part of the STEAM Team Star Docents, a biweekly program with STEM enrichment activities.
“My favorite activity we’ve done was with circuits,” she said. “I like that science allows for understanding and progression. Although I want to be a biomedical engineer when I’m older, I would like to learn how to code and more about astronomy.”
She considers the FSU Planetarium a one-of-a-kind, first-class facility.
“I love the planetarium,” Jones says. “It’s not too big and not too small. The projects make everything very clear and make the experience very immersive. I like that there are many different features, including full dome videos and galaxy tours.”
The planetarium offered its first Space Camp for seventh- through 12th-graders last summer; a second one is scheduled for June 12-16. 
“Students will build and launch rockets and learn how to program small robots during the week,” Kabbes says.
One teacher who has taken advantage of the planetarium is Diego Mendivelso, an earth and environmental science and chemistry teacher at Cross Creek Early College High School on the FSU campus.
The planetarium has showcased FSU’s science and technology programs to generate interest and awareness among his students, says Mendivelso, a teacher for 12 years who has lived in Fayetteville for two years and attended the National University of Colombia.
“The planetarium has developed an essential role in the divulgation of science among the schools in Cumberland County,” Mendivelso says.
His STEM team was among 60 winners in NASA’s second TechRise Student Challenge, a nationwide contest designed to engage students in technology, science and space exploration. The team will receive $1,500 to build an experiment that will be tested on one of two NASA-sponsored high-altitude balloon flights this summer.
The FSU planetarium also is among 100 worldwide chosen to host a show in honor of the 50th anniversary of rock band Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” album.
A remastered version of the album was released, and the band created the planetarium show. The FSU planetarium was one of the first two in the U.S. that was approved to license the show, Kabbes says.
The Pink Floyd show debuted April 6 and continues through June. For ticket information, go to the planetarium’s website.
“This show is a series of stunning, full-dome visuals choreographed to the songs from ‘Dark Side of the Moon,’” Kabbes says. “Each song has a unique visual theme. We see the ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ show as a unique cultural opportunity for FSU and the Fayetteville community. Given our world-class, high-definition projection and 6,500-watt sound system, we will offer an experience like no other in the region.”
When Kabbes arrived at Fayetteville State six years ago, he hit the ground running.
“I got here the third or fourth day of August of 2017, and two weeks later we had an eclipse party,” he says. “Here, the eclipse was about 95%. Even with only two weeks to get it together, we had about six to eight hundred people. It was a lot of fun.”
Excited about science
With its continued growth, the planetarium is Joe Kabbes’ world, and everyone is welcome to it.
Especially students.
“This isn’t about me. It’s about opportunities we’re trying to create,” Kabbes says. “I want to introduce them to the excitement of science. A lot of kids don’t realize that, ‘I could be a scientist; I could be an engineer.’
“I went to a third-grade class one time and was showing a picture of one of the conferences I was at, and (the attendees were) about half women. And a little third-grade girl in the back said, ‘You mean girls can be scientists too?’”
That look of wonder from people viewing his exhibits is what drives Kabbes.
“There’s two things,” Kabbes says. “I want people to feel like they can come back another week and learn more of this stuff and, secondly, I get bored doing the same thing over and over again.”
For tickets to the Saturday shows at the Fayetteville State University planetarium, go to https://www.uncfsu.edu/community/planetarium.

Joe Kabbes’ universal views

The manager of Fayetteville State University’s planetarium likes to sprinkle cosmic observations in his educational programs.
Time and space: “Astronomy is not just looking at the sky, but it’s a time machine because the farther away you look, the further back in time you are looking. So, when you look at galaxies that are really, really far away, we’re actually seeing them as they were close to the beginning of the universe. When light left there on its way to your eyeballs tonight, there were dinosaurs walking around here. That’s kind of a mind-boggling thing for people to realize.”
Closer to home: “Say if you could establish communications with the nearest inhabitable planet and say, ‘What’s up?’ in 4 1/2 years, it gets there. So it’s almost a nine-year travel time just to have a round-trip conversation with the nearest star.”
Alien life: “There’s got to be life out there. We see life in places here on Earth that we weren’t expecting to see. There’s two moons, Europa and Callisto, near Jupiter and Saturn. Europa has more liquid water under its icy surface than in all the oceans of Earth. You’ve got hot liquid water. There’s almost certainly life under there. It’s just getting to it is tough.”