Orange Coast College looks to the stars with new planetarium

It’s official — Orange Coast College’s new $23-million planetarium is finished and will open to the public March 23 with its premiere show, “Explore,” which takes its audience on an imaginary trip to Mars.

A dedication ceremony for the 11,000-square-foot planetarium is set for March 22.

“I think [the planetarium’s] going to be one of the best additions to this community the college has ever had,” said Coast Community College District trustee David Grant. “It’s going to bring community people in who’ve never been here. It’s going to give students and STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] programs an opportunity to be inspired unlike anything any classroom can ever do.”

The planetarium at the Costa Mesa campus will be open to OCC students and the general public, though public showings will occur only on weekends.

Admission will be free for students with student IDs. General admission will be $6 for adults and $5 for senior citizens, veterans and children younger than 12.

The planetarium will have an additional show, “Earth, Moon & Sun,” which planetarium director Scott Mitchell said is suited for families with young children. The show, which features a “confused and troublesome” coyote, explores astronomical phenomena such as lunar eclipses, the seasons, day and night and the sun.

The planetarium has a 129-seat auditorium, a Foucault pendulum that demonstrates Earth’s rotation and a “Science on a Sphere” exhibit that provides an astronaut’s perspective on Earth’s weather patterns.

The pendulum — the only one in Orange County — was sponsored by a $1-million gift from retired OCC professor Mary McChesney.

There also are plans to add a lunar and Martian meteorite exhibit, but there are no confirmed dates on when those exhibits might be featured, Mitchell said. The planetarium has bought about nine programs that will run through the year, including one about the Apollo missions to the moon. The first lunar landing will have its 50th anniversary in July.

Mitchell hopes to add a telescope farm outside the planetarium by the end of next year.

Developers broke ground on the project in 2016, but talks to replace the college’s old planetarium — built in the 1950s — began years before trustees approved the college’s Vision 2020 facilities master plan in 2015.

Grant said the idea came to him after he went to the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles. He later suggested the possibility of building a planetarium. The idea picked up steam after other board members went to the observatory.

Funding for the planetarium came from bond proceeds through Measure M — a college district initiative approved by voters in 2012 for facilities rehabilitation and construction — and the OCC Foundation, in addition to $3 million from community donations.

The building, which is where the old planetarium used to be, is one of several facilities being built as part of the plans set forth in Vision 2020. Construction continues for the campus’ student union, College Center, aquatic center and student housing.

OCC is talking with the Orange County Board of Education to try to schedule field trips to the planetarium for K-12 students.

“We’re so grateful to the community for supporting Measure M,” OCC interim President Kevin Ballinger said. “I think they’re really going to see this campus in the next three years just take off.”