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Things Are Looking Up for Stargazer

September 17, 1988|ANNE Z. COOKE

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.

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