SMC — “I have two questions. One, how fast is Jupiter’s orbit? And two, have you heard anything about the L-Cross,” asked the bright-eyed, brown-haired astronomy enthusiast.
Jim Mahon, who gives lectures on the cosmos at the John Drescher Planetarium at Santa Monica College, answered the questions slowly and clearly so that even an 8-year-old could understand because, in fact, this particular inquirer was an 8-year-old boy.
Those questions were just a sample of many during the two-hour planetarium presentations that Mahon puts on at the planetarium each Friday.
The weekly themed-presentations begin with a simulation of the evening sky during the “Night Sky Show,” and are followed by a lecture about current space exploration with topics that include human space flight, the moon, the gas giant known as Jupiter and amateur telescopes. The shows last from 7 p.m. — 9 p.m. each Friday evening through Oct. 30, with two special shows on Nov. 6 and Nov. 20.
After traversing the dark corridors of the second floor of Drescher Hall on the evening of Oct. 16, one stepped into a new realm when entering the planetarium. On a platform bordered by purple panels within a dimly-lit room, Mahon stood with his arms outstretched, addressing the audience of approximately 40 people like the commander on the deck of the starship Enterprise in an episode of “Star Trek.”
With the theme of “NASA’s Human Spaceflight Future” on this particular night, Mahon emphasized that, because of funding deficiencies and technological obstacles, NASA’s space station program would come to an end between 2010 and 2016.
He, then, projected several images of the current space missions, breezing over pictures of the Lunar Crater Observing and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS) mission, which aimed to explore whether water, in the form of hydrogen, was present on the moon.
Mahon had a unique way of describing many of the astronomical bodies in space in order to activate the listeners’ imaginations. For example, he likened the rings of Saturn to “old phonograph records” and the Milky Way to “white powder on black velvet.”
One of the most topical subjects discussed was Apophis, an asteroid the size of about two football stadiums. This asteroid was believed to have a slight chance of striking the earth in 2036. However, Mahon eased fears by revealing that recent studies have greatly decreased the possibility of a collision. Reports from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena have decreased the chances to about four-in-a-million.
After this brief 20-minute introduction, the lights turned off, and a clear, starry sky was projected on the 28-foot diameter-sized, cathedral-like dome using a Digistar II projector.
While pointing out the different constellations, Mahon discussed how different cultures affected the way people saw the night sky.
“Ooos” and “ahs” were heard from the audience when the sky suddenly began to rotate to simulate real-time. The movement of the stars was then fast-forwarded to demonstrate the instability of location in space. The stars no longer seemed like stars, but looked like frantic fireflies on a summer night.
The most exciting part came when Mahon simulated going the speed of light and moving through a black hole. Feeling like the “Simpson’s” virtual roller coaster ride at Universal Studios, many of the children began to yell out in unison, “Faster!”
The night show received rave reviews from several of the audience members.
“I loved it. It’s educational and entertaining,” said Jessica Schrobilgen, a mother from Santa Monica who brought her 4-year-old son.
Following the excitement of the night sky, the lights were turned on with a short intermission. Most of the younger attendants and their families began shuffling out, with only about a dozen people staying for the lecture that ended the night.
The college-style, informative talk about the Augustine Commission, a NASA sponsored review dealing with the future of the space program, was aimed mostly toward the über astronomy lover.
“It’s nice because Jim gives us insight into a lot of the backroom political things,” said Anton Sipos, a computer programmer from West L.A. and an astronomy buff.
Overall, the event was well attended, with about 40 young school children, parents, middle-school kids on assignment and curious adults.
“The SMC Planetarium is a unique resource, not only for students in college, but the whole community,” said Bruce Smith, public information officer at SMC. “(The planetarium) clearly fulfills the education mission, but it also fulfills the community service mission.”
The planetarium is a nice place for parents to bond with their children, for people using a telescope for the first time and for the locals to have this type of experience without having to travel all the way to the Griffith Observatory, Smith added.
Mahon agrees that the planetarium is a great benefit to the local community because he believes that it fulfills the natural human emotion of experiencing a connection with the mysteries of space.
So, whether in the confines of a planetarium or out in the openness of nature, Mahon stresses the importance of always being aware of the wonders of the unknown.
“It’s a beautiful universe up there … so please, please, please, keep looking up,” he said.