Theft of planetarium leaves astronomy club in the dark

Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal

Thieves on Tuesday stole about $30,000 worth of gear from a local astronomy club, including a highly prized inflatable planetarium used to spark a love of science in schoolchildren and families across the state.

The theft has left The Albuquerque Astronomical Society scrambling to figure out how to meet the school presentations it has scheduled for the next few months.

“It allowed us to show how the sky looks at any place, any time in history to any culture,” said Jim Greenhouse, a member of the society and the space science director at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science.

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The club is booked for the next two years for these presentations, which give children and teachers a chance to interact with constellations and their associated myths, and digitally zoom in for close looks at space objects, stars and planets.

He said the loss of the planetarium is frustrating, especially because the thieves likely won’t even profit from it and then will likely just abandon the expensive exhibit. The club bought it for $25,000 in 2014.

“I mean, how are you going to pawn off a portable planetarium?” he asked. “Be on the lookout for a big inflatable dome.”

The Albuquerque Astronomical Society's inflatable planetarium travels around the state for the club's presentations at schools and other functions. It was stolen Tuesday from a storage unit. (Courtesy of the Albuquerque Astronomical Society)

The Albuquerque Astronomical Society’s inflatable planetarium travels around the state for the club’s presentations at schools and other functions. It was stolen Tuesday from a storage unit. (Courtesy of the Albuquerque Astronomical Society)

The dome was stolen Tuesday when thieves broke into society member Martin Hilario’s car parked and locked at his apartment in the far Northeast Heights. They stole his personal telescope, worth a few thousand dollars, his credit card – and used it – and, more upsetting to him, they also took the keys to the society’s storage unit, which listed the address.

From there, the thieves drove to the unit and raided it, taking large bins and boxes.

The bins contained models of planets, worksheets for students and all the other activities the volunteer society members use to put on presentations at schools.

In one of those boxes was the folded-up planetarium. The society hopes insurance will cover the loss.

But until then, it still has “star parties” to put on at schools and for the public to inspire kids and others to love science .

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“I’m an engineer at Kirtland. I do astronomy at nighttime, a lot of outreach, out there almost every day with my very active club,” Hilario said. “When I was a middle school student, my local astronomy club (in another state), they would come over and do a presentation and show me the night sky. It’s what got me into engineering and science in the first place.”

He said his telescope, along with many of those in the club, can focus on planets, the sun and even the birth of stars as they are happening.

“If you haven’t seen what the sun, the moon, or Mars or Venus look like through a telescope before, it’s a very changing personal experience, because it takes you away from what you’re used to. You can make a connection, like a different kind of connection with the universe and science, if you can see it with your own eyes.”

That will be harder now for the society to do without its planetarium, but members aren’t giving up.

A society supporter is obtaining another inflatable planetarium – from the 1980s. While the technology pales in comparison to the digital one that was stolen, the star information isn’t outdated.

“We’ll still pull it off,” Greenhouse said.

He said those who are interested can go to the society’s website, taas.org, to find out how to attend an event or help the club recover from the loss.

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