The New OCC Planetarium Inspires with Immersive Atmosphere and Galactic Design

Pendulum and Dome.

The blue steel dome of the Planetarium shares space with a 250-pound Foucault pendulum, illustrating the Earth’s rotation on its axis.

Dave South / Monolithic Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

Tower and Dome.

The spiral-shaped Planetarium with its Monolithic Dome theater. A Foucault pendulum is suspended from the top of the cone-shaped tower.

Dave South / Monolithic Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

Amidst the vastness of the Milky Way, multitudes of star systems whirl around an enigmatic singularity situated at the heart of our galaxy. When HPI Architects and Orange Coast College (OCC) needed to create a plan for their new planetarium, they relied on the stars to guide them. After ten careful years of discussion and development, they modeled the new planetarium on our spiral galaxy and placed a Monolithic Dome at its center.

“The night sky seems like a giant dome above our heads when we step outside, and this makes a dome planetarium theater the perfect setting to display the night sky indoors,” said Jessica Artinger, manager of the OCC Planetarium. “This is great for us being in Costa Mesa, California, where we can only see 50 or so of the brightest stars outside, and the entire Milky Way is completely wiped out by light pollution. We can truly make our audiences feel like they traveled hundreds of miles out into the mountains or desert to witness the stars, planets, and Milky Way.”

The Pillars of Creation.

The Pillars of Creation, a star forming region of the Eagle Nebula, as captured by the James Webb Telescope, shine down on the 124 reclining seats of the Planetarium.

Dave South / Monolithic Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

A Beautiful Campus.

The OCC Campus is an oasis of green space and palm trees. The new Planetarium stands out and attracts visitors.

Dave South / Monolithic Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

The planetarium opened its doors on March 23, 2019. The blue dome emerges through the top of the modern building, with windows reflecting light where the dome and roof meet. The surrounding spiral galaxy-shaped building includes exhibits, a ticket booth, restrooms, and a gift shop. A cone-shaped tower contains the electromagnet and mounting apparatus for the steel cable of the Foucault pendulum found inside.

A Beloved Building.

The 24-foot copper dome of the original OCC Planetarium.

Chris Jepsen / Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Construction of the new science center faced some resistance in the earliest stages due to the popularity of the previous planetarium. In 1959, OCC was the first community college in California to feature a planetarium. The elegant original building featured a breezeway and a beautiful 20-foot copper dome. Unfortunately, it was covered in asbestos.

“It was built in the 1950s by Richard Neutra, a student of Frank Lloyd Wright,” Artinger explained. “Community members who were historians were delaying the project so the building would reach the 50-year mark, which is when you can fight to have it be a historical landmark.”

The programs and design of the new planetarium reflect the significant advancements in science and construction technologies made in the sixty years since the original planetarium was built.

“I was a student at OCC from 2013 to 2016, and during that time, the planetarium was only blueprint drawings,” Artinger said. “The building hadn’t been used as a functioning planetarium for decades and was really only useful for storage. I was able to help the college convince historians of the importance of the new planetarium and how it would help students on their educational journeys. The summer after my graduation in 2016, the school broke ground and construction on this new beautiful facility began.”

A Spiral Arm of the Museum.

A replica of the Baringer Crater is found near the end of a spiral-shaped arm of the museum.

Dave South / Monolithic Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

Sphere of Science.

The museum’s Sphere of Science developed by NOAA.

Dave South / Monolithic Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

The museum exhibits lie in the spiral arms of the building and share space with the dome of the planetarium. The 250-pound brass Foucault pendulum demonstrates the Earth’s rotation through its oscillations; the shape it traces moves in relation to the rotation of our planet. Other highlights include a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) developed Science on a Sphere, and exhibits covering meteorites and a model of the Barringer Crater.

The Monolithic Dome features a 50-foot hemispherical projection screen, tilted forward about 12 degrees, and 124 reclined seats. The state-of-the-art Digistar 6 video system projects 8K resolution video from six Sony GTZ270 laser projectors set strategically around the room to mesh the six images into one seamless beautiful picture.

“The spherical shape gives the audience a fully immersive experience, where they can see the visuals surrounding their entire head,” Artinger said. “Our particular dome is tilted slightly forward to really make the audience feel like they are part of the show.”

Between the Domes.

The innermost dome of the three-dome system making up the Planetarium is a 50-foot diameter projection screen. The Monolithic Dome is painted black. The blue steel external dome is the outermost shell.

Dave South / Monolithic Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

The OCC Planetarium has become a place of joy and learning for visitors of all ages. Guests are mesmerized by the synchronized lasers and music in programs like Elton John’s Rocket Man and Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. The dome also provides excellent viewing space for the spectacular Mesmerica 360: A Visual Music Journey, featuring the work of Grammy-nominated composer and percussionist James Hood, with imaginary landscapes looming large in three-dimensional animation. The planetarium is one of only 14 venues in the country to show this program, featuring cinematic projection of artwork from around the world.

The planetarium dome hosts weddings, corporate events, industry panels, and proposals. Schoolchildren visit every Wednesday to view a Magic Tree House Space Mission titled To Worlds Beyond.

Since it opened on March 23, 2019, Artinger estimated that at least 17,000 students have attended diverse programs at the dome.

“We see approximately 9,000 K-12 children come through our planetarium during the academic year for field trips,” Artinger said. “We can cater to eight field trips a week, and we’re actually almost already sold out for the spring semester! All field trips explore the exhibits and then head into the dome for a pre-show, feature film, constellations, and a Q&A session.”

Shining Sisters.

The Pleiades asterism, or the Seven Sisters star cluster.

Dave South / Monolithic Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

Artinger creates pre-shows that are 15 to 20 minutes long, introduce feature films, and build on the content. She also updated a weekly Saturday show called “Skywatchers.”

“As the night sky changed weekly, I would update the content of the show with the current constellations, deep sky objects, and, of course, any new James Webb Space Telescope images on the full dome,” Artinger said.

Artinger has a bachelor’s degree in astrophysics from UCLA, with a minor in geophysics and planetary physics, and a master’s degree in mechanical engineering from Cal State Fullerton. She has wanted to be an astronomer since childhood. She previously was lead fabrication engineer for a NASA/NSF funded satellite project, ELFIN, studying how particles from the Sun behave in the magnetic field and how these particles produce aurora in the sky.

“I’m fortunate now because we get to inspire the next generation of scientists when they enter our planetarium,” Artinger said. “As you can see, my feelings run deep for this dome. I am very fortunate that life has brought me to this moment.”

The Southern Ring.

An awe-inspiring way to view the Southern Ring Nebula images from the James Webb Telescope.

Dave South / Monolithic Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

Community Planetarium.

The OCC Planetarium exhibits are usually open to everyone from 10-4 Tuesday-Friday, with public shows in the Planetarium on most Tuesday and Saturday nights. Check the school’s Calendar & Tickets page for more information.

Dave South / Monolithic Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

A Striking Silhouette.

The striking silhouette of the new Orange Coast College Planetarium.

Dave South / Monolithic Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0