UC Berkeley researchers create tribute for Golden Gate’s 75th anniversary

Simulation of Solar Beacon as viewed from the Space Sciences Laboratory in Berkeley.

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UC Berkeley researchers helped light up the Golden Gate Bridge on its 75th anniversary, though not with fireworks like the ones that lit the sky Sunday night.

Instead, the group of researchers from the campus’ Space Sciences Laboratory created mirror arrays called heliostats on the bridge’s two towers to reflect sunlight and make the bridge shine even during the daytime.

The heliostats direct sunlight from the bridge to different areas around the Bay Area at different times scheduled throughout the day, appearing to viewers as two bright lights atop the towers for 30 seconds at a time. The heliostats track the sun and adjust so the light remains directed to the same point for the whole 30 seconds.

The project, named Solar Beacon, was conceived by Space Sciences laboratory astrophysicist John Vallerga and London-based artist Liliane Lijn, though 12 other UC Berkeley researchers and engineers also helped in the creation and implementation of the heliostats.

“To place our mirrors on the Golden Gate Bridge towers is to commemorate and crown a great human achievement with light,” Lijn said.

The project website will eventually allow people to schedule “shows” directed at specific locations in the Bay Area, but the service is still in the test phase. Currently, a daily schedule of showings is listed on the website and includes locations like the Lawrence Hall of Science and the Berkeley Marina. The project is expected to last until August 30.

The Solar Beacon was just one of 75 other tributes set up to help celebrate the bridge’s anniversary. Events were capped off with a fireworks display that illuminated the bridge and was visible from around the San Francisco Bay Sunday night.

“The Golden Gate Bridge stands today as a testament of innovation and imagination, a bridge built by the people during the Great Depression,” said Janet Reilly, president of the Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District Board of Directors, in a press release.

Vallerga and Lijn first collaborated together when Lijn was awarded the Arts Council England’s International Artists Fellowship to become artist in residence at the Space Sciences laboratory in 2005, in partnership with the Leonardo Network and NASA.

Lijn said in an email that her vision for the project was inspired by the idea of attaching glass prisms to river stones to reflect light in a synthesis of “man-made and natural.”

“When John spoke to me of his idea of tracking the sun and reflecting its light and proposed we collaborate to make an art installation using this idea, I immediately realised that this was a convergence of very similar ideas,” Lijn said.

According to the Solar Beacon website, the heliostats act as a bridge between the sun and observers and has created a link between art and science.

“We’re lighting the birthday candles at the bridge,” Vallerga said in a campus press release.

Christopher Yee is an assistant news editor.