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Visiting JPL’s Orbit Pavilion at The Huntington Gardens

JPL’s Orbit Pavilion brings the sounds of space down to Earth at The Huntington Gardens.

Story and photos: Mario Boucher  

You’re in a beautiful garden, surrounded by sounds from outer space—and yet still close to home. No, this isn’t virtual reality; it’s the Orbit Pavilion at The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens, an innovative collaboration with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).

The aluminum shell-shaped dome near the Garden’s main entrance is the brainchild of JPL designer Jason Klimoski. Inside, visitors experience a unique soundscape from space, like hearing the ocean in a seashell. The exhibit, created by Daniel Goods, JPL studio manager, and David Delgado, JPL visual strategist, emits sound interpretations from the International Space Station and NASA’s 19 Earth Science satellites as they orbit the Earth in real time.

The sounds move around you in all directions through 28 speakers, “sort of surround sound on steroids,” Delgado says. Sound engineer and composer Shane Myrbeck took artistic license to give each satellite a “voice”; since space is a vacuum, there is no humanly detectable sound actually being emitted.

The data collected by NASA as it tracks satellites throughout the day is used to map the movement of sounds across the dome. “I think we were just fascinated by the idea that there are all these satellites that are up in space and we can’t see them but there are things down here that are speaking with them,” Delgado says.

NASA unveiled the exhibit at the World’s Science Festival in New York in 2015. The exhibit was then presented at New York’s Intrepid Museum, giving Goods and Delgado a chance to refine the project.

“We changed what you were hearing, and for us it was really a process of how do we get down to that simple presence of the satellites flying above you in real time,” Delgado says. “We wanted something that would kind of capture the magic of what you would be hearing … in a way that would be visually appealing … something that you’ve never seen or heard before.”

The duo jumped at the opportunity to display the exhibit at The Huntington. “The Huntington has all these different environments from around the world and very special plants that sometimes are even hard to find in nature,” Delgado says. “We just love that notion of the Orbit Pavilion being within that context.”

Since the public has reacted so positively to the exhibit, its run has been extended to September. “It’s wonderful that people have taken a liking to it,” Delgado says. “People like that it feels meditative and allows them to connect to a different aspect of reality that they can’t see or can’t hear but that they know is there.”

The Orbit Pavilion complements the astronomy section of the Beautiful Science exhibit at The Huntington Library.  

“The idea behind this particular collaboration between JPL and The Huntington Library was to connect current science to the history of science,” says Susan Turner-Lowe, vice president for communications and marketing at The Huntington. “People are dazzled by the beauty and sound of the exhibit and are captivated by its uniqueness, and the reception has been off the charts.” The installation allows visitors to learn about the history of science through the ages. “It lets us wonder,” Turner-Lowe says, “what were the big influences, what were the big moments in the history of science and our place in it [that give] us a better understanding of our planet.”

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