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Spring is here at that means it is time for a visit to one of LA’s most iconic attractions: The Griffith Observatory, where planets, stars and the universe collide like meteors with science and history in a spectacular array of interactive exhibits and displays.
I began a recent visit to the observatory by watching a celebration of spring on March 21. Held outside, the event marked the new season by projecting the sun’s image across the engraved meridian arc of the facility’s Gottlieb Transit Corridor at 1:01 pm and at 7:05 pm.
Astronomers know the event as the vernal equinox (equinox is Latin for “equal night”) because day and night are of nearly equal length throughout most of the world at this time, one of only two times a year when this is true. The vernal, or spring, equinox is the moment when the Sun crosses the celestial equator (the projection of Earth’s equator into space) from south to north. From the vernal equinox and until the start of summer – the summer solstice in late June – days will continue to get longer, and the noon elevation of the Sun will increase. This happens because the Earth’s axis is tilted 23½ degrees to its orbit.
Around the world, ancient ruins include features that align with the rising, setting, and passage of the sun through the sky on solstices and equinoxes. Griffith Observatory also has several architectural features that align with celestial events including granite lines laid into the concrete of the West Terrace.
The Gottlieb Transit Corridor marks the local noon passage of the Sun each day and maps the Sun’s yearly motion against the background constellations of stars. And inside the observatory, several exhibits explain the motions of the sun and moon and the passage of the seasons.
Besides the transit corridor, the observatory features all kinds of fun and informative astronomy stuff. One of my favorites is the Samuel Oschin Planetarium. With its spectacular Zeiss star projector, laser digital projection system, state-of-the-art aluminum dome, comfy seats, sound system, and theatrical lighting, the 285-seat theater is the truly one of finest planetarium in the world.
The planetarium is currently offering three live shows such as “Centered in the Universe,” which asks fundamental questions about our place in the Universe. Who are we? Where did we come from? Why is the world the way it is? This show is highlighted by a stunning full-dome video that transports visitors back in time, from the Library of Alexandria, to Galileo’s courtyard, to the world’s most powerful telescopes in a quest for answers among the stars.
Other shows at the planetarium include “Water is Life,” which leads viewers on a search for water – and possibly life – beyond Earth; and “Light of the Valkyries,” a voyage of Viking cosmology that explores the aurora borealis – the northern lights.
Another observatory highlight is the Gunther Depths of Space, a 32,000-sq-ft multi-level exhibit gallery buried beneath the observatory’s front lawn. This attraction is teeming with giant hanging globes and colorful displays and a 20-ft. x 150-ft. photographic mural of space.
Near the Depths of Space is a 50-ft.-long tunnel called the “Wormhole,” which leads to an exhibit area with items such as a 385-pound iron meteorite that hit Arizona 50,000 years ago; an interactive display that simulates a giant meteor hitting earth; an exact replica of Galileo’s first telescope.
Griffith Observatory is open to the public five days a week, with free parking and free admission. Free public telescope viewing is available every evening the Observatory is open and the sky is clear. For more information, visit: www.griffithobservatory.org.
-Photo and story by Greg Aragon