Wis. planetarium takes visitor on celestial tour

By Roger Schneider

Associated Press

Published: Wednesday, Oct. 26 2011 10:15 a.m. MDT

This Oct. 23, 2011 photo shows the sign for the Kovac Planetarium in Rhinelander, Wis., which includes an image of Frank Kovac Sr., left, and an image Frank Kovac Jr. shot of Comet Hale-Bopp Comet in 1997. Kovac Jr. built the planetarium over a 10-year period, from 1997 to 2007, and named it in memory of his father who died in 1997.

Roger Schneider, Associated Press

MONICO, Wis. — About the only thing more remarkable than the Kovac Planetarium is that on a Wisconsin tourism list of seven man-made wonders, it rated only an honorable mention.

Then again, when it's up against the likes of the Packers' Lambeau Field and Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin, maybe that's to be expected. That and the fact that the planetarium is plopped down in an isolated area of north-woods Wisconsin probably worked against it.

Frank Kovac Jr. is the 46-year-old amateur astronomer who built what he says is "the world's largest mechanical globe planetarium" on his 4-acre property near Monico, population fewer than 500. When he opened the planetarium in 2007 to his first customers, a woman and her son, it completed 10 years of work largely at night and on weekends that resulted from a lifelong passion inspired by his father in the family's hometown of Chicago.

He had no formal training in astronomy, opting for the Air Force after high school instead of college. He got the idea to build a planetarium in the early 1990s. It was an endeavor that was difficult to explain to the neighbors as the years dragged on, even as the project plowed ahead.

"They don't call it a planetarium. They call it a sanitarium," Kovac said. "Frank must be nuts saying it's going to look like this. Even one guy told his wife, 'That sounds really, really far-stretched that he can do that with glow paint.'"

All wackiness aside, what Kovac created is an hour-long celestial experience that is as entertaining as it is educational. His visitors include school and Scout groups from the area, but it also has attracted travelers of all ages from as far away as Texas and California.

Most planetariums show the movement of stars and other night-sky objects on a dome using expensive projectors. Kovac instead built a 2-ton, 22-foot-diameter mechanical globe, a project that he started in 1997. He did most of the work himself — minus the welding and motor building — during off-hours from his paper mill job, which also funded his project.

After "crazy," the word "meticulous" comes to mind.

He used luminous paint to apply about 5,200 stars inside the top of the globe, a process that took five months on a ladder and pretty much in the dark to replicate the night sky of the northern hemisphere at that location. The first star he painted was the North Star. Kovac's tour points out other prominent stars such as Polaris and Arcturus, constellations like the Big Dipper and Cassiopeia, and, of course, the Milky Way. The globe rotates to allow for the changing star positions with the seasons.

"Not that I'm an artist, just had to know where the dots went," said Kovac, who used a sky map to place his stars as accurately as possible. When something looked askew, he'd go outside on a clear night and look at the real thing to compare.

Planets require extra effort. He makes them with pins that he must move — from every few days to a month depending on the planet — to put them in their ever-changing positions as they revolve around the sun.

"For instance, here comes bright Jupiter in the east," Kovac explained. "By the time you get to 10 o'clock at night, that's where you'd see Jupiter, the largest planet in the solar system."

A soft music soundtrack sets the mood, or to simulate an outdoors sky-watching experience in the summer, there's a track of crickets chirping, Kovac supplements the sky-watching with power-point photos to show size and distance comparisons of objects like our sun and other stars.

"Frank describes the solar system in such a way that kids can understand his language," said Linda Hendrickson of Antigo, which is about hour drive away. She is a just-retired elementary school teacher who has taken classes of second- and third-graders to shows several times. "They loved it."

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