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Observatory Ready for Reordered Solar System

The Griffith Park facility, undergoing a renovation, says it can easily add new planets.

August 17, 2006|Bob Pool | Times Staff Writer

An explosion of planets? No worries. Los Angeles has plenty of space.

News that the number of recognized planets in our solar system could increase by nearly 600% was shrugged off Wednesday at the Griffith Observatory, where workmen are wrapping up a four-year renovation and expansion project.

A 5,000-square-foot solar system exhibit hall scheduled to be unveiled when the observatory reopens in early November will have ample room to display as many planets as the cosmos -- and the International Astronomical Union -- throws at it.

The professional astronomers group will vote next week on a new definition of "planet," which could boost the number from the currently accepted nine to as many as 53. The new list would include UB313, recently discovered beyond Pluto's orbit, as well as Pluto's moon Charon and an asteroid beyond Mars known as Ceres. The change would categorize Pluto and Charon as the solar system's first double planet, part of a new subclass of planets called "plutons."

Members of the International Astronomical Union have been discussing the celestial reclassification for two years. So, it turns out, have those in charge of Griffith Observatory's $93-million makeover.

"Obviously we've thought about this a lot the last few years," said Edwin Krupp, the observatory's director. "Our display on the solar system will handle Pluto consistently with the way things are going." Anticipating new cosmic revelations, observatory planners have included digitally operated displays that can be programmed to depict new planets -- and new solar systems -- when they are discovered, he said.

"There will be a sign that changes as the number of planets change. Sort of like the sign that shows the number of hamburgers served at McDonald's," Krupp quipped.

Workers are still completing the installations for the Richard and Lois Gunther Depths of Space exhibits, which officials have promised will be "a glittering panorama of real astronomical images; large, accurately scaled models of planets; and numerous interactive objects and exhibits."

The planets, in fact, will be the stars of the room.

"From the edge of the mezzanine and the floor below," visitors will encounter "a row of nine subtly illuminated, accurately scaled, three-dimensional models of the planets in our solar system mounted at the top of free-standing, 14-foot-high discovery panels," according to the observatory's descriptions of the project. Nearby, a suspended, 10-foot-wide projected model of the solar system will depict the planets' revolution around the sun.

Krupp indicated that fine-tuning the exhibit will be easy.

The proposed "new" planets are "fundamentally spots of light" that will be simple to depict. But there are potentially hundreds of other planets revolving around other stars.

"We can modify exhibits digitally," he said. "The key is to first find a planet and then we'll talk."

The study of astronomy used to be less complicated, he acknowledged. But that was many moons ago.

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