Things Are Looking Up for Stargazer

For those fascinated by stars--the cosmic collection, not the Hollywood kind--Southern California has a galaxy of offerings.

Especially noteworthy this fall is Mars, the solar system’s fourth planet, which swings nearer to Earth than it has at any time in the last 17 years.

As might be expected with such an event, astronomy clubs and the staffs of planetariums and observatories throughout the region have been working at the speed of light to ready special evening shows and viewings of Mars.

These showings will try to explain and detail the rapture of what many observers now call “Mars mania.”


Astronomical Wonders

But long after the fervor for the Red Planet has cooled, scientists and just plain folks still will find it worth their time to ponder the Southland’s many astronomical wonders, large and small, little- and well-known.

The supernova among the star centers is, of course, the Griffith Observatory overlooking Los Angeles on Mt. Hollywood.

Below the Observatory’s large center dome and two smaller side domes are a museum with astronomy-related exhibits, a bookstore and gift shop.


There is also a 630-seat planetarium that entertains more than 1.8 million visitors annually.

On the roof area are a 10-inch reflecting telescope and a coelostat or solar telescope.

Visitors exploring the exhibits will also encounter museum guide Victoria Alten, about to amaze an expectant crowd. As museum guests gather around her, she brandishes a four-foot fluorescent bulb, waving it aloft to show that no wires are attached to it.

Behind a darkened plate-glass window, the obscure outlines of an antenna-like wire coil are barely visible. Then Alten flips a switch on the wall and electricity surges into the coil.


Tesla Coil Experiment

Instantly, sparks of lightning appear to shoot through and off the wire, vibrating in a jagged halo. At the same moment that the rainbow-colored neon sign “Tesla Coil” above the exhibit lights up, the fluorescent bulb comes to life, glowing an eerie white.

Alten smiles and waggles it triumphantly, proof that fact is stranger than fiction. The crowd claps and “ahhhs” at this restaging of Nikola Tesla’s classic demonstration of high-voltage sparking.

The Tesla Coil exhibit is one of the museum’s showier stunts, a sure crowd-pleaser. But if the crowds of visitors standing in line to buy tickets are to be believed, the planetarium show is the main attraction.


Not everyone knows what a planetarium show really is, according to David Falk, manager of the Los Angeles Valley College Planetarium. Falk describes it as “a multimedia presentation that uses a sky projector to simulate the night sky on a domed ceiling, combining slides, music and narration to achieve an entertaining but informative show.”

At the Griffith Observatory planetarium, star-gazers file into the round theater, sink down in concentric rows of seats and tip their heads back onto curved head rests.

Realistic Effects

When the lights dim and the projector starts, the concave underside of the observatory’s center dome becomes a blue-black night sky where a myriad of stars “proceed according to precedent.”


The effect is so realistic that viewers feel their biorhythms ajar. Is this a lonely night in a remote meadow hundreds or even thousands of years ago or is it really another hot, sunny day in Los Angeles?

Visitors who climb to the observatory’s roof can take a look at the 12-inch telescope. Public viewing is permitted on weekend nights after the last show.

The current show, “The Invasion of Mars,” is shown Tuesday through Friday at 3 and 8 p.m. daily, and on weekends and holidays at 3, 4:30 and 8 p.m. The laserium show, a combination of music and light, is presented after the planetarium show.

Children under 5 are not admitted to the planetarium, but a special children’s show, “Vacation to the Planets,” is shown weekends at 1:30 p.m. Starting Dec. 11 is another show, “The Christmas Star.”


Tickets are $2.75 for adults, $1.50 for seniors and juniors. The museum is free. The Griffith Observatory is open Tuesday-Friday from 2 to 10 p.m., Saturday from 11:30 to 10 p.m., and Sunday from 12:30 to 10 p.m. Information: (213) 664-1191.

The Griffith Observatory’s rival in size and offerings is the Reuben H. Fleet Space Theater in San Diego’s Balboa Park. This 300-seat planetarium is unlike all others. With a tilted dome and seats arranged in tiered, not concentric rows, visitors feel as if they’re hanging in space.

A 152-speaker sound system and a dome surface perforated with 118 million tiny holes creates a sensation of “moving sound” in the theater. Both planetarium programs and OMNIMAX films (special large-screen features) are shown on the curved dome. Laserium shows are also presented.

The Space Theater building also contains a Science Center with more than 50 hands-on exhibits demonstrating the natural laws of science.


The Space Theater’s “Mars” show is scheduled during October and will be shown several times daily, paired with an OMNIMAX film. Tickets are $5 for adults, $3.50 for seniors and $3 for juniors (children under 5 not admitted). Ticket price includes admission to the Science Center. Call (619) 238-1233 for exact times.

Not all astronomy centers are in cities. Star-gazers who want to visit other large observatories with working telescopes can head to Mt. Palomar, east of Oceanside, or to Mt. Wilson, north of Pasadena.

The Mt. Palomar Observatory is the home of the 200-inch Hale telescope, the world’s largest of its kind, which has been operated by California Institute of Technology since 1947.

On Mt. Palomar, where once-dark skies are being threatened by spreading city lights, visitors can browse through a display of lighted photographs taken of and by the telescope. Then they enter the inside of the mosque-like white dome to view the complex machinery--a maze of robot-like joints, hoists and levers--that transforms the enormous lens into an all-seeing eye penetrating the universe.


In 1934, the Corning Glass Works poured the 20-ton glass disk that would become the telescope’s mirror. For eight months the hot glass slowly cooled; then it was shipped by train to Pasadena, where the work of grinding and polishing began.

By 1947 (the work was interrupted by World War II), the mirror, whittled down to 14.5 tons and backed with a sliver-thin layer of polished aluminum, was ready to be installed in the Observatory building.

Mt. Palomar is in the Cleveland National Forest; a visit to the telescope also means an opportunity to camp overnight in two nearby campgrounds, fish in Doane Lake and take day hikes.

The Hooker Telescope, better known as the Mt. Wilson telescope, is north of Pasadena in the San Gabriel Mountains. It is Southern California’s second oldest, built in 1917. The oldest, a 60-inch telescope built in 1908, is also on Mt. Wilson.


Nearby, two solar telescopes, 150-foot and 60-foot, conduct some of the world’s most advanced solar research. The telescopes are closed to the public but a museum of lighted photos with descriptive text shows the achievements of many years.

Because the sky high above the smog layer is usually clear, Mt. Wilson is the place for aerial photos of Los Angeles. Families will enjoy strolling on paths through the forest, and there is a picnic area and a snack bar with home-made chili, fruit juice, carrot cake, hot dogs and chips. The grounds are open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; no charge for admission.

Besides the large observatories and major planetariums, there are smaller, well-respected facilities where visitors can study the stars in Southern California.

Many of the small planetariums around offer excellent, low-price evening shows. Some general information: Be on time; late seating is not permitted. Children under 5 usually are not admitted. Tickets are sold at the door before show time.


Here’s a list of smaller planetariums and planned programs:

Citrus College, Schlesinger Planetarium, 18824 E. Foothill Blvd., Azusa. (818) 914-8872. A Christmas program is planned for Thursday evenings during the holidays. Call for further information.

El Camino College, 16007 S. Crenshaw Blvd., Torrance. (213) 715-3200. 77 seats. Weekly shows Fridays at 8 p.m. while school is in session. September: “Mars and the Martians”; October: “The Artillery of the Heavens”; November: “The Winter Skies”; December: “The Christmas Star.” Adults $1.50, children $1.

Los Angeles Valley College, 5800 Fulton Ave., Van Nuys, (818) 781-1200, Ext. 335. 45 seats. Monthly shows Fridays at 8 and 9:15 p.m. during school terms. Sept. 23: “Return to Mars.” Oct. 14: “A Visit With the Nearest Star--Our Sun.” Nov. 4: “Astrophotography Under Winter Skies.” Dec. 2: “Galaxies--Our Neighbors in Space.” Adults $3.50, students $2. Children 7 and under not admitted. After the show, visitors can view the sky through a 16-inch telescope.


Moorpark College Observatory, 7075 Campus Road, Moorpark. (805) 378-1408. Twice-monthly on Friday evenings, slide shows are presented in a 150-seat outdoor amphitheater. Afterward, public viewing through a 13.1-inch telescope and several smaller scopes. Admission: $2. Call for exact dates.

Mt. San Antonio Community College, 1100 N. Grand Ave., Walnut, (714) 594-5611, Ext. 797. 100 seats. Shows on Fridays at 7:15 p.m. Oct. 4 and 21, Nov. 18, Jan. 13 and 20: “The Mars Show.” Oct. 7, Nov. 4, Dec. 2, Jan. 6: “Journey Through the Solar System.” Dec. 9 and 16: “The Christmas Star.” Adults $1.50, youths $1; no children under 5 admitted.

Rancho Santiago Community College, 17th at Bristol, Santa Ana. (714) 667-3097. 100 seats. This is Orange County’s largest planetarium, with a 35-foot dome. Weekly shows Sunday afternoon at 2 and 4 p.m.: “Introduction to Astronomy.” Adults $2, children $1. Call for reservations.

Riverside Community College, 4800 Magnolia, Riverside, (714) 684-3240. 60 seats. Shows Fridays at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 7, 21: “Red Giants and White Dwarfs.” Nov. 4 and 18: “Ps and Qs of the Universe.” Dec. 2, 9 and 16: “The Christmas Star.” Adults $3, students $2.50, children $1.50.


San Bernardino Community College, 631 Mt. Vernon Ave., San Bernardino, (714) 793-9558. Shows every other Friday evening. No charge for admission.

San Diego State University, College Avenue, San Diego, (619) 594-6182. 50 seats. Monthly shows Friday at 7:30 p.m. Special shows every Friday, Sept. 30-Oct. 21, with public telescope viewing of Mars through a 16-inch scope afterward. Tickets are free. Call for information.

Santa Barbara Natural History Museum, Gladwin Planetarium, 2559 Puesta Del Sol, Santa Barbara. (805) 682-3224. 60 seats. Shows at 8 p.m. Sept. 19-23 and 26-30: “Close Encounter With Mars.” At 9 p.m., after the shows, telescope viewing in the observatory on a 29-inch telescope, a 16-inch telescope and a half-dozen smaller scopes. A 3-D video movie, with special glasses, also is shown.

Regularly scheduled shows on the current night sky: Saturdays, 3 p.m.; Sundays 1:30 and 4 p.m. Price included with museum admission: Adults $3, juniors and seniors $2, children $1.


Santa Monica College, Pico and 18th Street, Santa Monica, second floor of the Technology Building, (213) 452-9223. 53 seats. Weekly shows Friday nights at 7 and 8 p.m. At 7 p.m., “The Night Sky.” At 8 p.m., changing current topics. September and October: “Return of the Red Planet.” Nov. 4 and 18: “In Search of the Most Amazing Thing.” December: “Star of Wonder.” Tickets, $2 per person per show. Free public viewing through six telescopes afterward.