Jo'burg planetarium celebrates

The Johannesburg Planetarium, owned and operated by the University of the Witwatersrand, is celebrating its golden jubilee this year.

The facility opened its doors on October 12 1960 and was then the first full-sized planetarium in Africa and is among the country’s most treasured sources of vital information on the celestial realm.

Dr Claire Flanagan, the director of the planetarium, is excited about their anniversary. “Personally, I think operating any science centre for 50 years is something to be proud of,” she said.

Flanagan said their key responsibility was to communicate aspects of astronomy, including science, maths and technology, to the public by:

  • Running shows in which the public are taught how to identify stars, constellations and planets in the Southern African skies. These generally include background information about what could be seen in the sky, such as the discoveries on Mars;

  • Operating a website to inform the public on which eclipses were visible, as well as maps of what was currently in our skies;

  • Fielding questions on topics such as when the new crescent moon would be visible from South Africa and explaining new planet discoveries; and

  • Members of the public calling to understand what they had seen in the sky or helping learners with school projects. Architects also tended to call to find out at what angle the sun would shine on a building they were working on.

Flanagan said the highlight of the planetarium was the screening of the footage of the first Moon landing in 1969, long before the advent of TV.

“Probably the biggest achievement regarding school shows is being a popular venue for schools—we get around 66 000 learners and educators here each year. Most of these are from rural areas, which is great,” said Flanagan.

Although the planetarium served schools, she said she was not happy with their programmes for primary schools because “they do not yet deal with the huge challenge of language issues, which is a particular problem for the younger learners”.

But, said Flanagan, the senior phase and further education and training programmes were “huge fun at the moment as language is less of an issue.

“To be honest, though, our best achievement is when a learner comes to us after a show and says, ‘I want to do what you do when I’m older’. You can’t beat that,” said Flanagan.

She said schools interested in visiting the facility should book in groups whereas ordinary members of the public could attend the regularly scheduled shows.

Schools or members of the public can call the planetarium on: 011 717 390 or email: Or they can visit the Planetarium website at: The 2010 admission fee is R30 (adults), R18 (students and seniors) or R12 a person for school groups

Thabo Mohlala

Thabo Mohlala

Thabo reports for the Teacher newspaper, a Mail & Guardian monthly publication. Apart from covering education stories, he also writes across other beats. He enjoys reading and is an avid soccer and athletics fanatic. Thabo harbours a dream of writing a book. Read more from Thabo Mohlala

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