[Masthead - Herald]

Christmas star shining at updated planetarium

By Michael Roknick — Herald Business Editor
December 13, 2015

[Christina Pedas_aurora borealis image]
Christina Pedas stands under a computer-generated image of the aurora borealis at the Ted Pedas Planetarium at Farrell High School. Her Uncle, astronomer and philanthropist Ted Pedas, who founded the planetarium decades ago, donated $100,000 recently to upgrade the center to create dynamic shows.

FARRELL - Starting Monday the Ted Pedas Planetarium will boldly go where it has never gone before.

Located in Farrell High School, the planetarium was the brainchild of Ted Pedas - a teacher there in the 1960s. An avid astronomer, he went on to create a successful travel business. Now in retirement, the philanthropist has rededicated himself to bringing the planetarium back to its glory days.

[Christina Pedas] The Farrell native has spent $100,000 to give the planetarium an upgrade into the digital era - and more is in the works.

When American euphoria over reaching the moon reached its zenith, planetariums began sprouting across schools throughout the nation. But as the moon missions faded in memory, and educational funding for such enterprises dwindled, the planetariums were seen as an unnecessary luxury.

"This is one of the few remaining planetariums still functioning in a public school,'' Pedas noted. "But the technology in there was from the 1960s.''

At first glance a visitor likely won't notice the changes. Its chairs were refurbished with the tablet arms taken off to make them more comfortable.

The real modifications were made in the planetarium's guts. A slew of computer hardware and software upgrades were installed, allowing for far better viewing and snazzier shows. Previously, shows at the planetarium could only show antiquated slide projector images on a slice of its dome.

"We added an all-sky projection system that makes it possible to project 360 degrees,'' Pedas said. "It can cover the entire dome with movie pictures that shows motion. What we're able to show now is a film that covers the whole dome.''

These days, receiving top-notch digital media through online streaming of films and TV shows is a simple tap on a tablet or TV screen. That played a part in Pedas' decision for a planetarium upgrade.

"With the kids, we're competing with all kinds of of other media,'' he noted. "It's not enough anymore to show a passive slide show.''

Installing all these high-tech upgrades wasn't a simple matter of pushing a button. His niece, Christina Pedas, and her boyfriend, Kevin Lynch, gave up a week of their vacation to install these upgrades.

"First we had to take all of the stuff out of the old equipment,'' she said. "You can't believe how much there was and how long it took.''

Along with the hardware improvements, Pedas spent a tidy sum buying first-rate shows specifically designed for planetariums. The upcoming Christmas show film for students cost $3,500 while the other one for the public rang up a $5,000 bill.

"And I bought some others, like the Lewis and Clark expedition we'll be showing later next year,'' he said. "

This week's public planetarium show, called "The Mystery of the Christmas Star," takes a look at what astronomical event might have created the biblical account of the bright star showing the wise men where Jesus was born. Among the possibilities explored are if it was a nova, a supernova or the conjunction of multiple planets.

"It's a combination of Christianity and astronomy,'' Pedas said. "The show for children in school takes a more educational look at what is the meaning of Christmas, Hanukkah and Ramadan.''

Public showings of the film, which runs from Monday through Thursday, will start with an eight-minute demonstration of the new equipment. It will immediately be followed by the 45-minute show, with the equipment being run by Christina and Kevin.

For the elder Pedas, the show is a return to his roots. For 30 years he held a Christmas show at the planetarium that was wildly popular. Interest in the public began to wane over time so it was discontinued.

"It's been 12 years since we've had a public show,'' Pedas said. "This is a one-year trial; if we get a good turnout we'll have a show again next Christmas. If we don't get a good response, we won't.''

As for his beliefs on how people should look at the science of astronomy and the birth of Jesus in the movie, Pedas said that's up to each individual.

"We all search with a sense of humility. We all realize it was from a powerful source,'' he said. "We leave the answer up to the audience.''

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