UA ‘Space Hogs’ raising funds for new mobile planetarium

Space Hogs / Courtesy

A student organization that focuses on astronomy and planetary science is raising funds for a new mobile planetarium to use for its community outreach programs around the state.

The organization, along with the University of Arkansas Center for Space and Planetary Science, this week launched a crowdfunding campaign in the hopes to secure enough money to purchase a brand new StarLab, a mobile planetarium package that features state-of-the-art software and a five-meter portable dome.

The new planetarium, which would replace the current outdated one the department currently uses, would be used in schools, libraries, and community centers throughout the state to “inspire the next generation of engineers, scientists, and astronauts” in Arkansas.

According to the organization, their outreach presentations often fill an educational gap in under-served communities throughout Northwest Arkansas. Throughout the last year alone, they estimate over 2,000 people have attended their events.

Their mobile planetarium show has been their largest and most popular outreach program to date, however, their 1970s-built device was in serious need of an upgrade.

Various rewards are available for those who decide to support the project, including being listed as an official sponsor of the planetarium, or being invited to private, early showings of the new planetarium.

So far, the organization has raised about $2,000 toward their $8,000 goal.

The fundraiser runs through March 19.

We got in touch with Woody Gilbertson, president of the Space Hogs, and Ellen Czaplinski, their vice president and treasurer, to learn more about their organization, and what they hope to achieve with the new planetarium.

Tell us a bit about the Space Hogs organization, when it got started, and its affiliation with the University of Arkansas

Woody Gilbertson: Space Hogs has been a registered student organization at the University of Arkansas, since 2010. This allows us to apply for university funding to help send our members to scientific conferences every year. We are not an official department, just an organized group of students that all are passionate about learning and sharing astronomy and planetary science. We conduct astronomy outreach events of all sorts in Arkansas, but mainly sticking to Northwest Arkansas due to lack of funding and time.

How long have you been involved with Space Hogs at the UA?

Woody Gilbertson: I entered graduate school at the U of A in Fall of 2016, and I believe my first event with Space Hogs was in the following spring (2017). Since then I’ve grown increasingly involved every year, leading up to becoming the President of Space Hogs.

Ellen Czaplinski: I have been a member of Space Hogs since the Fall of 2016, when I started graduate school. I have attended and presented at our movie nights, assisted with day and night observing, and organized various outreach events. I originally started as just a member who was interested in space, but in the last two years I have become the vice president and treasurer.

Have you always been interested in space? What are some of the things about astronomy that you find so fascinating?

WG: I’ve definitely always been interested in science, largely thanks to my dad who is a molecular biologist. I was generally interested in every field of science as a child, but as I reached high school, I realized I was much more interested in things like physics and math. Then throughout my undergraduate degree I really fell in love with astrophysics. So, in a way space has always been there for me, but only in the last 6 years have I been there for space.

I think the most interesting thing about astronomy to me is just how much stuff there is out there. There are more stars in space than total words and sounds ever made by every single human being that has ever lived. And that’s just the stars! That’s not even getting into planets, comets, and more exotic things like black holes and dark matter.

Mobile planetarium / Courtesy

And then there’s the actually distances of space. For how much stuff there is, there’s even more empty space. We always like to show people how big the planets are relative to each other, and also show them how far apart they are, but it is absolutely impossible to do both at once. If you tried to fit the solar system into a classroom the Earth would be 1% of 1 millimeter, or approximately 1/3rd of the width of a grain of sand. Forget about trying to find Mercury or Pluto!

EC: Unlike a lot of people who have been interested in space from a young age, I had other interests when I was younger. Growing up in rural Indiana, I wasn’t exposed to many hard science or technology events, so I focused on hobbies like 4-H and playing music. When I was in high school, I realized that I really enjoyed my advanced chemistry classes and that my science classes were my favorite ones. Around the same time, I discovered various space documentaries on TV like “Through the Wormhole with Morgan Freeman” and “How the Universe Works” and became obsessed with them. Studying space seemed so fascinating to me and after seeing many women planetary scientists and astrophysicists on those documentaries, I knew that I wanted to be like them one day. So I decided to go to college at Purdue University to pursue a degree in planetary science.

One of my favorite parts about astronomy is how vastly different objects in space can be. You can go from looking at clusters of galaxies that are 65 million light years away (~400 quintillion miles) to looking at a single grain of sand on the surface of Mars. Personally, I think the possibility of finding life on another planet is the most fascinating part of astronomy/planetary science. I think it would be so fascinating to finally be able to answer the question “Are we alone in the universe?” I think the answer is “no.”

Tell us a bit about some of the outreach programs that Space Hogs has implemented in the community.

WG: Space Hogs has done a wide variety of outreach programs over the years, most of which are at the request of others. Usually we’re asked by a group to come out to them and put on an event, including day or night sky observing, planetarium shows, or hands-on science activities. Because we’re a volunteer group of students we’re able to provide these services to the community for free, as long as we can find the time in our schedules for the events.

We’ve worked with schools, libraries, scouting organizations, churches, farmers markets, radio shows, and more. It’s really very rarely that we say no to an event, and it’s almost always just due to not having enough members that can make the event. We’ve had people make up their own constellations using Dots candy, simulate eclipses with Oreos, and figure out the age of craters by dropping golf balls into flour and cocoa powder.?

EC: We always make a point to go to events at more rural schools because they may not have as many opportunities as some other schools, similar to my rural high school in Indiana. It’s really important to me that rural schools have the same opportunities to attend our events as any other school would. That’s what is so great about having a mobile planetarium: so we can travel all over the state with our outreach program.

Also, whenever I am running an outreach activity with excited kids, it is really important to me that I call on girls to answer questions I ask. Oftentimes, we get young boys who want to answer every single question, but I am always sure to also give the girls a chance to answer as well to show them that space science is an inclusive community.

You guys are working on a new Mobile Planetarium project that sounds really cool. Tell us about that. 

WG: The aspect of astronomy that our group focuses on is public outreach, meaning we take space science to the community’s schools, libraries, community centers, and anywhere else we’re invited. For the last decade we’ve gotten to use a mobile planetarium owned by the University, and this has been by far our most requested type of event. Unfortunately, our planetarium is decades old, has seen quite a bit of wear and tear, and frankly the science we’re showing is simply outdated. This is why we’re raising funds to purchase a brand new planetarium.??The old planetarium has physical cylinders used to project fixed images, while a new digital planetarium will feature a full color projector that can download new programs from the internet so we can always show cutting-edge science. The simplest comparison I can give is that we’re basically upgrading from an old Kodak slide projector to a 4K high-definition projector with built in streaming services. It’ll still be entirely mobile, so we will be able to bring this planetarium all-over the community. This cuts out the cost and time of organizing a field trip to visit a science center or planetarium.

The entire crowdfunding campaign is being run through a service at the U of A called FundRazor. There’s plenty of information about the campaign on the website. We’re accepting donations at all levels, and we are including some incentives for donating at certain levels, such as being listed as a local sponsor of the planetarium or being invited to an early, private showing. This really is a planetarium for the community, and we want the community to feel like it is theirs. Our campaign runs through March 19th, so we’re asking people to act soon.

In addition to the crowd funding campaign, are there other ways for folks with an interest in astronomy – even on an amateur level – to get involved?

WG: Since we are a student group at the University, we’re fairly restricted to having students join our group. That being said, our focus is on sharing our knowledge with the community, fostering an educational environment outside of the traditional classroom activities.

The biggest impacts are made through long-term commitments, which require a lot of energy from both sides (the scientists and the participants). As big of a step as the new planetarium represents, if the community really shows great interest in it, this could just become the first step.

The Astronomical Society of the Pacific has a program called Project ASTRO which has professional scientists “adopting” classrooms for a year and making monthly visits. And despite the name, the Astronomical Society of the Pacific runs this program in Texas, Ohio, Georgia, and plenty more states. NASA runs a program called Universe of Learning, which helps bring the newest astrophysics to the general population. These types of programs not only need willing scientists (we’re already right here, but citizen scientists can help too!), but also enthusiastic participants. If the University sees that the community wants these connections, then certainly they can get the ball rolling. A successful FundRazor would certainly help.

Some other options for individuals are to join up with some of the other local organizations. The Sugar Creek Astronomical Society is great for amateur observers, and I’m sure that newcomers to the hobby would be welcome. The Arkansas Natural Sky Association is a group that mainly works towards addressing the growing problem of light pollution (as a side note, the Buffalo National River is an International Dark Sky Park, putting it on the same level of observing as places like the Grand Canyon). They have members all through-out the state, so I’m sure that people looking to find other amateurs can search in that group.

Are you guys working on any other projects you’d like to tell us about?
WG: Since we’re all students we all have a variety of projects that we’re working on all the time, but those are much more of personal research projects and not things that our entire organization is tackling. We have members who are looking at specific organic compounds formed on Saturn’s moon Titan, others who are looking for ways to detect water on exoplanets trillions of miles away, and some like myself that are studying black holes.

As far as projects that Space Hogs is working on, this new planetarium project is really our focus right now. Depending on the level of success we see, we do have potential future projects lined up though. We get requests from all over the state including Pine Bluff, Jonesboro, Hot Springs, and more. We would love to be able to take our planetarium on a tour of the entire state, stopping at dozens of locations over the course of a couple weeks. However, we’re a purely volunteer student organization so all of that funding would come out of pockets currently. If we have any extra funds, we would love to make something like this a reality.

Thinking even more long-term, it would be great to have some sort of permanent Space Hogs event. Something monthly through a program like Project Astro of Universe of Learning would be incredible, or even a yearly space camp over the summer. Programs like that would take a lot of organization in planning with the University, but it could happen. As long as it doesn’t take away from our ability to take space science to the people. Being able to show up to a school or organization that can’t afford to travel to us is absolutely essential. Traveling events are what Space Hogs are built is on, and I hope they never stop.

What are your plans for after you are finished at the UA?

WG: After I’m finished at the U of A my career goal is to keep doing astrophysics research, but as it might be obvious, I don’t think I will ever willingly stop doing outreach. Fortunately, most academic institutions understand the value of a scientific literate populous, so outreach is never too hard to find. I could see myself continuing on in academia as a professor, or possibly finding a job at a NASA facility and focusing purely on research. Places like NASA Goddard in Maryland are home to hundreds of astrophysics, and I would be honored to end up in a place like that.

EC: After I complete my Ph.D. I want to apply to work for NASA as a research scientist for spacecraft missions. Some examples of exciting upcoming missions are Dragonfly, which will search for habitable environments on Titan, and Europa Clipper, which will investigate Europa’s hypothesized subsurface ocean. I hope that wherever I end up, there will be space science outreach program that I join so I can continue to spread my knowledge and passion for space to the community. My ultimate goal is to be an astronaut so I also plan to apply to NASA’s astronaut candidate program sometime soon after I graduate.

This article is sponsored by First Security Bank. For more great stories of Arkansas food, travel, sports, music and more, visit