Marymount Takes Portable Planetarium on the Road

We’re not quite ready to take students into space, but thanks to a portable planetarium, Marymount University has been taking space to elementary and middle school students. It’s a great way to get them excited about science, said Dr. Eric Bubar, the assistant professor who is in charge of MU’s Myhill Portable Planetarium.

    “It’s pretty rare that you can have a planetarium come to your school,” said Bubar, who teaches physical sciences and biology. “It really immerses the kids in whatever subject I’m teaching, whether it’s the moon or Mars.”

    At the end of May, Bubar spent two days at Saint Ann Catholic School, where he presented “Back to the Moon for Good,” a 24-minute planetarium show chronicling teams around the world that are competing for the $30 million Google Lunar XPRIZE. To win, a team must land a robotic spacecraft on the Moon, navigate 500 meters over the lunar surface, and send video, images and data back to earth. Bubar has also taken the planetarium to Fort Belvoir Elementary School in Fairfax County and to science fairs.

    Marymount got the planetarium last year, thanks to fundraising efforts by Bubar and others.

    “It’s easy enough that I can teach anybody how to use it within 35 to 40 minutes,” Bubar said. “One person can set the whole thing up.”

    The planetarium, which weighs about 60 pounds, is so small when packed that Bubar can haul it in his Honda Fit. Made of heavyweight plastic and vinyl material, the inflatable dome needs only a 20-by-20-by-20-foot indoor space for use. It can comfortably hold about 30 young kids or 20 adults.

    Bubar likes to show “Back to the Moon For Good” because it really gets kids excited about the idea that they can plan a trip to the moon.

    “When kids come in they immediately lay down because they can see the whole show,” Bubar said. “But none of them fall asleep because they enjoy it so much.”

    Denae Vargas, who graduated from Marymount last month with a degree in elementary education, used the planetarium several times when student teaching fourth graders during the spring semester.

    “I liked the ease of using it,” she said, noting that it was small enough to fit on the school’s auditorium stage. “It was really amazing for students to lie in the planetarium and see the constellations move across the sky.”

    This fall, she’ll be teaching first grade at Park Ridge Elementary School in Stafford County.

    “I’m looking for a grant so we can get our own planetarium down the road,” she said.

    In the past, Bubar said many schools had analog systems for planetariums that are no longer supported. Converting them to a digital system can be expensive. He said only a few dozen schools throughout the country have the portable planetariums. They typically cost between $25,000 and $30,000, though Marymount was able to purchase a refurbished version because Bubar was comfortable making adjustments.

    “We need to get to students when they’re young, motivate and engage them, and we’ll be in good shape in the future,” Bubar said.

    For more information, or to request a planetarium visit, go to


Photo 1

Students at Park Ridge Elementary stand outside Marymount University’s Myhill Portable Planetarium. They were concluding their study of the solar system. From left, D’Brickshaw Davis, Jackson Dixon, Sofia Bragin, Lily Canales, Bailey Gibson, Isabella Mayorga and Chase Krause.

Photo 2

The planetarium, packed and ready to go in Dr. Eric Bubar’s car.