Under the Stars


Essentially, it is a tent: five meters across, dark blue canvas, dome shaped. What happens inside this portable shelter, though, is truly cosmic. That is because this particular tent is an inflatable planetarium designed to bring the wonder and majesty of the solar system to children across Los Angeles.

 Conceived and implemented by Caltech research astronomer Jessie Christiansen and Jeff Rich, outreach coordinator and astronomer at the Carnegie Observatories (which owns the planetarium), this project began in 2018 as a way to make astronomy more accessible to young people, especially those who might not be able to travel to visit a conventional planetarium. That’s why this duo has focused on taking their star show to pediatric hospitals—two, so far, with hopes of adding more.

On a Friday morning in July, Christiansen and Rich set up the dome in an outdoor play area at Kaiser Permanente Los Angeles Medical Center in East Hollywood. As nurses and patients passing through the adjacent corridors peered out, the big blue bubble began to take shape, inflated by a large fan. Moments later, the first audience member—a slight 11-year-old girl holding her mother’s hand—stepped hesitantly onto the playground, shielding her eyes from the sun.

All it took was a quick unzipping of the canvas door, however, and she was transported to another place, a witness to the marvels of the night skies as they were digitally projected onto the canvas ceiling with pinpoint clarity. 

Rich began his 20-minute planetarium presentation that day by showing L.A.’s night sky, with the stars of the Big Dipper just discernible, the North Star twinkling, and a handful of others faintly visible. Then he awed his audience by switching to a view of the night sky in a place without significant light pollution, featuring a panoply of previously invisible stars as well as most of the Milky Way. A quick introduction to the constellations segued into a close-up view of Saturn and finished with a dramatic visualization of the relative speed at which planets orbit the sun.

With a few clicks of his remote, Rich can tailor his presentation to his audience; showing, for example, how the night sky appeared when one young spectator was born, or projecting Oklahoma’s nighttime starscape for a family from that state.

“I like the idea that they’ll hopefully remember some of this,” says Rich, who notes that the planetarium was purchased with a grant from the Pasadena Community Foundation. “They might not want to be astronomers but this is a great jumping off point for thinking about the universe.”

Christiansen says that her own astronomical “aha” moment happened while gazing at the night skies as a child in the Australian countryside. “I didn’t need a planetarium; I could just go and step outside and see the shooting stars and the nebulae and everything.”

Being able to bring a similar sense of wonder to children in light-polluted L.A. is rewarding, she says. “You get one kid inside the planetarium to go ‘Wow!’ and you’re like, ‘Yes, that’s why we’re here.’”

As the Kaiser visit drew to a close and Christiansen and Rich began deflating the planetarium and packing it into its oversize duffel bag, Rich reflected on the day’s most fulfilling moments. “I love that we were able to accommodate everybody. There was a child in a wheelchair, a child with an IV pole. I’m just so glad we were able to get everyone in.”

—Judy Hill

Fall 2018, More StoriesJon Nalick