Lights out at new CSM planetarium 

A fire sprinkler system at the planetarium at College of San Mateo, which opened Jan. 16, accidentally triggered and ruined the interior, leaving the attraction closed for today’s National Astronomy Day.

On March 23, the sprinkler system malfunctioned, ruining the star projector as well as the video and audio equipment, causing an estimated $1.75 million in damage, said Mike Claire, CSM president. Claire said it will cost $2 million to replace the equipment but all costs are insured, he said.

"This is a deluge type of system so it was a lot of water, unfortunately," he said.

The 3,300-square-foot facility was built as part of a $207 million bond package approved by voters in 2001. The 100-seat facility’s magnificent 55-foot dome was built to host astronomy classes, the county astronomy society and public events, which will not be held at the planetarium until its reopening June 1.

An investigation as to how the sprinkler system was triggered is still under way. There were four different contractors involved in the planetarium’s building. Claire said any suspicion of foul play or criminal activity has been ruled out.

"CSM is not at fault at all," he said. "The college district is working collaboratively with the contractors."

An industrial hygienist also was retained to inspect the carpeting and seats for mold and concluded that there were no health risks.

Ed Pieret, president of the San Mateo County Astronomy Society, which meets at CSM every first Friday of the month, said the planetarium’s closing is "unfortunate."

But the annual Astronomy Day celebration will feature other ongoing activities including solar system workshops, observatory tours, rocket launching and an appearance by NASA scientist Dale Cruikshank. Late-night stargazing may be canceled if there are evening clouds.

"It does rain on the parade because it’s a spectacular planetarium," he said. "It’s too bad, but hopefully it will be back up and running soon."

Astronomy Day activities will be coupled with the school’s Family Science Day — with biology and geology-themed games for kids. The festivity begins at 2 p.m. through midnight and is free to the public. Up to 2,000 people are expected to show based on past attendance, said Charlene Frontiera, dean of the Math and Science Division.

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A daily newspaper covering San Francisco, San Mateo County and serving Alameda, Marin and Santa Clara counties.
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