January 7, 2023

FTV: YOOR-un-us


     When the new Marquette Senior High School opened for the 1964-65 school year, people were still asking, “Why do they need a planetarium?”  The popular rumor at the time was the school board ran out of funds and modified the building plans as the structure began to take shape.  When the available money was stretched as far as it could be stretched, the district approached the Shiras Foundation about funding the proposed swimming pool.  With the outdoor pool near Presque Isle Park already bearing the Shiras name (it has since been reimagined as the Moosewood Nature Center), the Foundation made a counter offer:  “We won’t fund another Shiras swimming pool, but we would finance a planetarium attached to the new school.”  In truth, money to fund a star projector was obtained from the National Defense Act.  With these funds secured, the Shiras Foundation generously funded the project to construct a planetarium to house the projector.  A swimming pool was apparently discarded from the original plan, perhaps due to the dwindling funds mentioned previously.  A pool did get added to the campus when the building was enlarged during the 1970-71 school year and was in use by the next year – the year after I had left those hallowed halls.

      At the time, the closest planetarium to the Upper Peninsula was in Green Bay, WI so it was a unique educational facility.  The Ben Long Planetarium at Lake Superior State University would not be opened until 1975, but by then, the Shiras Planetarium already had a decade of service behind it.  The next closest planetarium to Ontonagon these days was built between 1997 and 2022 in Monico, WI, just outside of Rhinelander.  The Kovac Planetarium was constructed by Frank in honor of his father who first got him interested in astronomy.  The Kovac isn’t a typical dome type room utilizing a large star projector and/or video projection systems like the Shiras employs.  The Kovac Planetarium is housed in a pole type building and is the largest rotating mechanical planetarium in the world.  Kovac’s creation is a 22 foot diameter, two ton globe tilted at a 45 degree angle that he built from scratch.  It uses a chain drive and wheel system to move the globe about the observers seated inside.  

     Frank’s planetarium does have projectors to enhance the shows he puts on, but the 5,000 stars one sees crossing the heavens as the globe rotates were hand painted by Kovac using glow in the dark paint.  Since it opened, it has become quite a tourist attraction as there are only three in the world and as mentioned, this one is the largest.  Kovac says, “The best views are of the actual sky and usually found in places where you can get away from city lights and then you can see what is always there.  More information on this newer attraction can be found at

     My interest in astronomy began when I followed my older brother Ron outside to see constellations, satellites, northern lights, and meteors before Shiras Planetarium opened.  My first visit to the Shiras took place the year it was opened.  I was in sixth grade at Whitman Elementary, a whole block away from the new MSHS.  They marched us over for a presentation during school one day and I dragged our parents there for an evening public showing soon after.  Mr. Girard, the planetarium’s first director, lived a block closer to the school than we did and presented evening shows every Monday.  The next summer, we were riding our bikes past the school and discovered him working on the next public program.  We invited ourselves in and he was  kind enough to answer our questions and show us some of the new things he was working on.  When we had taken up enough of Mr. Girard’s time, he ushered us to the door and said, “Thanks for visiting, come back anytime.”  

     In the fall of 1977, I was in my third year teaching in Ontonagon when I made contact with the second Shiras Planetarium director, Scott Stobbelaar.  I was teaching seventh graders at the time and made arrangements to bring my class to the planetarium as part of our astronomy unit.  It was my first attempt at organizing a field trip and of course, there was a learning curve.  There was no money budgeted for field trips, so we told the kids, “If you want to go, it will cost a buck each to pay for the bus (shows were free to school groups back then).  If you don’t want to go, you can have a lonely day at school.”  

     Our two bus loads set off on an early December morning and naturally, one of them broke down going up the second big hill just south of L’Anse.  The timely passing of a Michigan State Police car got a message to the MSP Post in L’Anse, who relayed it back to the school.  Mechanic Al Daniels came to the rescue and we were back on the road in a different bus in less than an hour.  The planetarium could only seat 66 so we had scheduled two shows with a lunch stop at the Wildcat Den located in NMU’s University Center.  The delay meant a change in lunch plans but we learned a few lessons – like scheduling the trip earlier in the fall in case we had another break down.  Thus began a 40 year string of yearly visits to the Shiras Planetarium that was broken the year before my 2018 retirement when it was closed for renovations.  In all that time, we had one other bus give up the will to live but a quick thinking bus driver was able to borrow a bus from the Baraga schools to get us there on time.  When I added the eighth grade science classes to my schedule, they continued what I am told are unbroken records for a school group taking the farthest and most continuous visits to the planetarium.

     With enough planetarium backstory told, we can cut to the chase.  The title of this FTV says ‘YOOR-un-us’ – so one may wonder where this fits in.  On my very first trip to the Shiras Planetarium, I was a little miffed at some of my classmates.  As Mr. Girard was giving us a tour of the Solar System, a bit of muffled snickering ensued when he got to the planet Uranus.  Crude elementary age thinking aside, I never could find the humor in turning the name of a majestic planet into a potty joke.  Mr. Girard let it pass but it always bugged me when one could not say the name ‘Uranus’ without someone getting the giggles.  After taking a couple of college level astronomy classes from Dr. Duane Fowler at NMU, I adapted his use of ‘YOOR-un-us’ after he explained that the whole ‘potty humor’ thing happened because we Americans were simply saying it wrong.  I took this at face value but never did understand the origins of the name until I received the September 2022 Equinox edition of The Planetary Report that is printed four times per year by The Planetary Society (see for more information).  

     As PS president Bill Nye (yes, that Bill Nye the Science Guy guy) explained, “The Planetary Society gives NASA input every ten years for their Planetary Science Decadal Survey.  With input from the PS, the 2022 decadal set a new direction for planetary exploration:  Uranus.  It’s a mysterious world.  Uranus and neighboring Neptune are ice giants, made mostly of materials that were ices at the time of formation.  They played an important role in the evolution of the Solar System.  Using telescopes on the ground and in orbit, we’ve peered at these distant worlds, but there are limits to what we can learn from afar.”  Among the numerous features in this issue of TPR devoted to highlighting this new emphasis on exploring Uranus, one of the first tackled the whole naming thing.

     Uranus was discovered on March 13, 1781 by William Herschel, no doubt with his sister Caroline at his side taking notes as she often did for her brother.  Hershel was actually seeking new comets when he discovered the Solar System’s seventh planet, thus giving him the even rarer opportunity of naming a new planet.  Devoted English subject that he was, William first considered Georgium Sidus, or George’s Star.  Astronomers outside of Great Britain were not keen on him not following the accepted convention of naming planets after Roman gods.  Both Herschel and Neptune were considered until German astronomer Johann Bode suggested Uranus.  Bode’s calculations and observations were used to help confirm the new object as a planet and his suggestion soon became the most popular.  Chemist Martin Klaproth named his newly discovered element ‘Uranium’ in support of the name.  Stubborn English astronomers continued to use Georgium Sidus until around 1850 when they finally joined the rest of the world in using Uranus.

     Kate Howells, communications strategy advisor for TPS, notes Uranus was a suitable, yet odd name for the new world:  “Uranus is actually a variation on the name of the Greek god Ouranos.  Greek and Roman mythology share many of the same characteristics, but they just gave them different names.  The Roman version of Ouranos is called Caelus.  Bode must have preferred the sound of Ouranos because he chose a Latinized version of the Greek name rather than the Roman name itself.  Ouranos became Uranus, and the planet was officially named.”  Bode no doubt did not anticipate the popular Americanized pronunciation ‘Your-AY-nus’ that would cause scientists and educators such headaches a century later.  Most in the scientific community prefer the ‘YOOR-an-us’ alternative and NASA officially endorses this pronunciation.  

    Howells sums up the ongoing debate thusly:  “Since both pronunciations are deviations from the original Greek “OOH-ran-ohs,’ neither is more technically correct than the other.  But as we look forward to the coming years of reporting on and advocating for the exploration of Uranus, we’ll [The Planetary Society] opt for ‘YOOR-un-us’ and do our best to keep this fascinating world from becoming the butt of the joke.”  Obviously, there is a ‘potato – potahto’ element at play here, but we will leave it to the readers to choose:  the ‘potty humor’ or ‘ knowledgable and scientifically accepted’ pronunciation.

     Today, we know much more about Uranus than Herschel did and there is no debating the plant’s statistics.  With an atmosphere consisting of 83 percent hydrogen, 15 percent helium, and 2 percent methane and other gasses, it would be an inhospitable place to visit.  With no true rocky planetary surface, we would find the average temperature where the atmospheric pressure would equal the sea level pressure on Earth a bit cool.  The average temperature there would be a chilly -195 degrees C, or -320 degrees F.  Uranus orbits 19 X farther from the sun than the Earth and Solar Year for Uranus would be 30,687 Earth days, 84 times longer than the Earth’s Solar Year.  While the other planets orbit with their axis of rotation close to perpendicular to the Earth/Sun plane, Urannus was at some point tipped on its side.  We are familiar with the 23 and one half degree tilt of the Earth because it drives our seasons.  Uranus tilts 98 degrees from perpendicular.  If other planets are viewed as ‘tops’ spinning about the Sun, Uranus is more like one of those spherical casters found on furniture ‘rolling’ around as it orbits the sun.

     Scientists speculate that Jupiter and Saturn may have originally formed farther from the Sun than their current locations while Uranus and Neptune formed nearer to the Sun.  The planetary dance of these two giant terrestrial planets and the two ice giants (so called ‘gravitational resonances’) may have caused them to switch places and induced Uranus to wobble enough to land it on its side.  Another popular theory is another giant proto-planet slammed into Uranus to the same effect.  A closer look taken by a new exploratory mission may provide enough information to help determine what actually happened.

     This new exploration phase will not be the first visit to Uranus.  Voyager 2 was launched in 1977 to explore the outer Solar System.  After flybys of Jupiter and Saturn, V2 arrived at Uranus on January 24, 1986.  Our first close up images of the planet were taken as the craft sped by 81,500 kilometers (50,600 miles) above the cloud topped atmosphere.  According to TPS’s Jason Davis, “Images revealed a pale green orb seemingly devoid of features and storms.  The planet’s magnetic field was knocked 55 degrees off axis, hinting at some strange dynamics below the atmosphere.”   Voyager 2 approached the planet and its rings (did I mention Uranus has rings? 
They are not as visible as Saturn’s, but they are there) “like a dartboard, forcing scientists to choose just one moon for a close fly-by;  Miranda.”  Miranda was shown to be scarred with divots and grooves and possibly the largest cliffs found in the Solar System.  Besides Miranda, there are four more major moons (Ariel, Umbriel, Titania, and Oberon), the largest of which may contain layers of liquid water beneath their frozen surfaces.  There are 22 smaller moons in the system and a new mission will target as many of them as possible.

     So what is the time line for a new mission to YOOR-un-us?  Formal work on the $4.2 billion project could commence as soon as 2024.  Interest in a new mission to Uranus has picked up with the recent discovery of more than 5,000 exoplanets (planets around stars other than the Sun).  Learning more about Uranus will aid us as we discover and analyze more exoplanets.  For those who think spending billions of dollars exploring the cosmos is a waste of time, I will remind one and all that one of humanity’s best characteristics is curiosity.  We are driven to know more about the universe, our origins, and what else may be out there.  I will also go out on a limb here and suggest that the ‘billions’ NASA spends on exploration is a small FRACTION of what the world currently invests in armaments.  For my dime, I would like to spend more on exploration and less on explosions, thank you.

     One last note on the Shiras Planetarium.  If you walk past the Ontonagon Area School building on the way to the Bob Carlson Athletic Field, take a good look at the gym wall that faces the playground.  There is an outline in the brick wall for the double doors that would have accessed the swimming pool that was never built when the new high school was constructed in 1966-67.  I have been told the pool was removed from the plan as the cost of building the new school was stretched too far to include it.  Does this sound like the one planned for the new Marquette Sr. High School building back in 1964-65, but it was also dropped from the original plan for financial reasons?  The planetarium came to be not because of the pool not being funded, but because they had already received the grant to purchase the equipment and needed a place to set it up.  Either way, the MSHS building now has both a pool and a planetarium.


Top Piece Video:  Who better to turn to than Gustav Holst’s The Planets – This is, of course, Uranus