Night sky comes to life at SMC's planetarium

The night sky above Santa Monica College showed the stars lighting up in a blue gleaming cluster, shining in luminous stellar explosions, and dancing in a constellation that appeared like a swan with spread wings. Astronomer Jim Mahon revealed this cosmic theater to attendees of the show and lecture called, "Autumn Deep Sky Wonders," presented at Santa Monica College's John Drescher Planetarium on Friday night for the first time this semester.

The planetarium has been projecting the wonders of the universe since 1971, and was the brainchild of Bruce Young, the first chair of the earth science department at SMC.

The theater has a 28-foot diameter that allows attendees to travel through and beyond the solar system.

Mahon showed a group of visitors just how dangerous and vast the cosmos can be, and how comparably small a human individual is.

"Understand that we are on a very small mode of dust orbiting one little star in one galaxy out of billions," said Mahon. "We're very full of ourselves, and we should spend a little more time considering our relative insignificance when scaled against the cosmos."

"At the same time you are an integral part of it," he continued. "Your body, my body, in every blade of grass, there are atoms that were made in the stars. We were born out of stardust. We are physically, intimately connected to the sky."

During the show, the dome above the audience darkened and the theater turned into a cavern.

A gallery of impressive sights hovered overhead. Stars and colorful clouds called nebulae appeared. Some shone like pearls, others stretched and spread like colorful haze or transparent rivers of light. Mahon said that as fall is approaching and evenings become longer, the time would be more ripe to study a phenomenon so beautiful, organic and even destructive, such as the Lagoon Nebula, a milky orchid which is in fact a huge cloud of hydrogen.

All eyes were fixated on Mahon when he discussed supernovas, the massive, catastrophic death of a star which produces an eruption of energy so powerful that the resulting nebula, or “wreath on a dying star” as Mahon described it, can devour any planet in its path.


After the planetarium show, Mahon led the audience outside Drescher Hall, and with a fine laser pointer revealed a world of myth and evolution in the night sky.

The stars took on a new shape as Mahon explained constellations and clusters of stars that are all connected to ancient stories and Greek mythology.


The season of stargazing is just beginning. Coming up at the planetarium are programs about the moon and even NASA’s latest plans for Mars explorations. The planetarium will be hosting the Friday night shows through Feb. 7, beginning at 7 p.m.