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Jakarta's planetarium faces uncertain future due to ageing equipment

Jakarta's planetarium faces uncertain future due to ageing equipment

The projector, a Zeiss Universarium Mark VIII, inside the Jakarta Planetarium and Observatory's theatre dome. (Photo: Jakarta Planetarium and Observatory)

JAKARTA: Standing at three metres tall, a teal-coloured spherical-shaped beast with more than a dozen eyes is the crowd-puller of the Jakarta Planetarium and Observatory. 

For every day since 1996, the projector, a Zeiss Universarium Mark VIII, has been faithfully wowing visitors with an hour-long show of the wonders of the vast universe and man's attempt to understand and explore it.  

However, the 23-year-old machine, which was initially designed to function for 15 years, is currently running on borrowed time. There is a real prospect that it might break down beyond repair before the planetarium could acquire a new one.

Indonesians from near and afar, who hold the institution close to their hearts, are urging the government to take prompt action so that the first planetarium of the nation does not roll down its shutters for good. 

"We had to reduce the number of shows," Mr Widya Sawitar, a senior researcher at the planetarium told CNA, as a handful of visitors stayed back after the day's final show to check out items on display in the small exhibition hall.

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"It was originally seven. A few years back we started cutting back on the number of shows and finally, at the beginning of last month… two shows a day," the 55-year-old astronomer said. 

The technicians are pushing the current unit to work beyond its shelf life because the planetarium could not secure money to buy a new projector, which costs up to a few million US dollars.  

In 2015, the German manufacturer stopped producing parts for the projector, forcing the local technicians to get creative - replacing broken parts with those meant for newer models, other brands or completely different machines.  

Jakarta Planetarium and Observatory's senior researcher Widya Sawitar inspecting one of the planetarium's collections. (Photo: Nivell Rayda)

“Zeiss technicians came here and they were awed by how we managed to pull it off, and that their old projector is working at all,” Mr Sawitar said.

However, there are signs that the machine’s demise is on the horizon. The projector had already broken down four times this year. The culprit, overheating, was one that technicians in Jakarta could not resolve.

“That’s why we can only afford to do two shows a day, one in the morning and one in the afternoon, to allow time for the projector to cool down,” Mr Sawitar said.

“However, when you have overheating issues, you run the risk of damaging delicate electronics inside the projector or worse, it could affect the entire system and the projector could stop working completely.”

The planetarium has been begging the government to allocate funds to buy a new projector. Complicating the matter is the government’s plan to have state-owned enterprise Jakarta Propertindo taking over management of the Ismail Marzuki Arts Complex, where the planetarium is located, mid next year.

“The government insisted that the procurement should wait until the new management comes in,” Mr Sawitar said. “Until then, all we can do is hope that the projector will last a few more years.”  

Jakarta Propertindo director Dwi Wahyu Daryoto told Indonesian news portal BeritaSatu that his company is planning to revitalise the planetarium, but stopped short of saying that they plan on procuring a new projector.  

“We are still developing the grand design for the complex. Further details would have to be discussed by all stakeholders,” he said.

Jakarta Planetarium and Observatory faces possible closure due to ageing equipment and underfunding. (Photo: Nivell Rayda)

With an affordable ticket price of 7,000 rupiah (US$0.5) for children and 12,000 rupiah for adults, the planetarium - one of only three in Indonesia - is a favourite destination for people from all walks of life, some travelling hundreds of kilometres from rural towns in Java and Sumatra.

Every year, the planetarium attracts 137,000 visitors, mostly during school holidays. Even in its quietest season, the facility still draws 8,000 visitors. After the show frequency is reduced, the number instantly plummeted to 4,000, Mr Sawitar said.

News that the planetarium could close devastated residents of Jakarta, where a visit to the facility is on the itinerary of almost every elementary and junior high schools’ field trips ever since it staged its first show in March 1969 with a non-digital projector.

“I know it could be expensive to buy a new projector, but the government needs to stop the planetarium from shutting down,” said 16-year-old Rifan Arnoldi. “Where else can you learn about astronomy in Jakarta?”  

Visitors taking a photo in front of Jakarta Planetarium and Observatory. (Photo: Nivell Rayda)

Ms Veronica Leatomu, a teacher at a private elementary school in Jakarta said the planetarium has been instrumental in exposing her students to astronomy and science.

“This is the best way to really learn what planets, galaxies and stars are. Most kids in Jakarta today have never seen the stars with all the bright lights and pollution. The planetarium will open and enrich their minds, just like it did to my generation when I was their age,” Ms Leatomu told CNA.

Others aired their disappointment online.

“I may not have a Jakarta residency card, but seeing the planetarium’s sorry fate, I feel sad as well. Does the government of Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia, not have money for repair, or have they all spent it on another art project?” Twitter user Sari Kartikawati wrote.

Another user wrote: “Please, please. Jakarta is not Jakarta without the planetarium.”

Mr Sawitar himself has fond memories of visiting the planetarium as a boy with his family. “I studied astronomy because of it. When I landed a job at the planetarium in 1992, it was like coming home,” he said.    

Jakarta Planetarium and Observatory's senior researcher Widya Sawitar. (Photo: Nivell Rayda)

“This is a place of knowledge. I’m sure the government will realise this and do all they can to save it. I believe they will.” 

Source: CNA/ni(tx)

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