An anonymous donor from Orange County gave $1 million to Orange Coast College’s astronomy program in 2013 to go toward a new astronomy village.
Today, the Astronomy House’s construction is complete and its doors are open to Orange Coast College faculty and students.
Located between the Math Lecture and Science halls, the Astronomy House welcomes visitors with a mat that says, “Welcome to Our Universe.”
Aside from it being the offices of two astronomy instructors, Nick Contopoulos and Jerome Fang, the Astronomy House has its own special collections gallery, a conference room, library, student lounge, two virtual reality rooms and a kitchen.
“It’s a unique space in which we hope to inspire,” Fang said. “We want to keep it as a space for any student. We don’t want to limit it to only astronomy students.”
The space, heavily insulated to reduce outside noise, was modeled after department-specific lounges found on university campuses, aimed to increase peer-to-peer literacy, Contopoulos said.
Most peer-to-peer literacy will take place in the student lounge, called Astronomy Lounge 132, which is adorned with objects meant to inspire.
A photo taken by the Hubble Space Telescope of the Tarantula Nebula adorns the back wall of the student lounge. On the coffee tables sit globes of the lunar surface with its labeled craters and a tectonic globe of the Earth with plate boundaries. Across from the lounge’s sofas and chairs is a transparent celestial sphere, which shows every constellation in relation to the Earth’s location in the universe.
The shelves in the lounge include educational documentary films such as “Inside Einstein’s Mind” and “How the Universe Works,” as well as items aimed to provoke fascination in both astrophysics and quantum physics.
Students can find plush toys representing the cosmic microwave background (CMB), different epochs of the universe and particles, such as muons, electrons and protons.
“Things are made symmetrically,” Contopoulos said. “If you have one particle, you have to have the antiparticle to balance it out.”
Across from hall is Conference Room 115. The conference room has both tacked walls and a dry erase wall for an educational and interactive environment.
Fang and Contopoulos plan on hosting a wide array of informal lectures and meetings. A projector will be provided for both faculty and clubs like the Astronomy Club and research clubs to host their meetings.
Aside from an astronomy-themed question of the week, Contopoulos plans to host educational lectures and workshops aimed to increase outward skills, such as How to Build a Cohesive and Professional Poster, Contopoulos said.
“Instructors can also come and present to students their favorite scientists, whether it be Einstein, Newton or Fermi,” he added.
However, the Astronomy House’s conference room is not limited to faculty use. The Astronomy department wants it to also serve as a place for student clubs to congregate and host meetings.
During these informal meetings, refreshments will be available to students and faculty in the Astronomy House’s kitchen.
According to Fang, the full-sized kitchen is called Kitchen Galley, named after the galley aboard a ship or the International Space Station.
The first thing students will notice in the Kitchen Galley is the large alien specimen sitting in a glass jar. According to Contopoulos, it is one of three aliens from Orange Coast College’s old planetarium in a space called “Area 51-and-a-half.”
The kitchen has two dining tables, eight chairs and a counter with three barstools. Other amenities include a refrigerator, a microwave, planet-themed plates and bowls. Cutting boards and dish towels say “black hole” on them, “because they absorb anything,” said Contopoulos, whose office is located at the end of the Astronomy House’s hall.
Between the conference room and the library is a yellow bridge. According to Fang, the bridge symbolizes the transition from the outside chaotic world into a more tranquil environment.
The mini library, found across the hall from Contopoulos and Fang’s offices, is exceptionally quiet and has hundreds of books spanning over all areas of science.
The library’s books, most of which have been donated by Contopoulos, work on a trust-basis, in which students can borrow the books freely.
The Astronomy House also has two virtual reality rooms, 117A and 117B, which will offer some educational and astronomical VR experiences, such as landing on the moon.
Students can also expect to see more features added to the Astronomy House in the future. The Special Collections Gallery will include meteorite specimens and a scale replica of Opportunity, the robotic rover that landed on Mars in January 2004.
Faculty will also be putting up vintage NASA travel posters from the 1960s and 1970s.
Students are already beginning to use the space for study. Kai Wilding, a 20-year-old business and theater major, said he’s been using the Astronomy House to do homework since it opened.
Wilding said the astronomy faculty made him develop an interest in the field and that Contopoulos always tells him, “I want you to leave this class with more questions than you have answered.”
“The Astronomy House is an interactive atmosphere where curiosity can take hold of you. I say, if I can get students to gather, talk and think, then it’s all worth it to me,” Contopoulos said.