Made On Earth — Orbital Illusion

Craft & Design


Fairgoers at the 2010 Bay Area Maker Faire were mesmerized by a massive, steel-and-glass orrery gently rotating in the main hall. At the controls was artist Orion Fredericks.

Like much of his work, Fata Morgana (a term for a complex mirage) was inspired by a dream. Fredericks, 34, sought to create a kinetic sculpture that filled the viewer with the same sense of awe and wonder he’d experienced.

First he crafted a small but more complicated version and learned from its mistakes. Then he spent a month drawing and planning, another month gathering materials, and a final month of solid fabrication. What he ended up with is a fascinating play on light and illusion, a mechanical representation of a solar system — not ours but the one he envisioned.

At the core of the sculpture are a 1,000-watt full-spectrum light bulb and a 24-volt wheelchair motor that drives the primary shaft. Power is transferred through gears and pulleys to four friction drive wheels that rotate two tiers of the sculpture clockwise and two counterclockwise. Passively kinetic elements are carefully balanced throughout.

A second motor controls the optical beam splitter. When the central light reaches the outermost 3-foot-diameter rotating lenses, Fata Morgana projects an illusion of itself around its perimeter.

Materials were donated or scavenged in the “nooks and crannies” of Oakland, Calif., Fredericks says. And though it’s hard to imagine, since it measures 15 feet tall and 24 feet wide, Fata Morgana is actually a prototype for a larger, more complicated piece to come.

Like a solar system, the sculpture has a gravitational pull of its own. The artist notes, “People usually want to sit under or close to it.”

Orion Fredericks:

Fata Morgana:

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I'm a word nerd who loves to geek out on how emerging technology affects the lexicon. I was an editor on the first 40 volumes of MAKE, and I love shining light on the incredible makers in our community. In particular, covering art is my passion — after all, art is the first thing most of us ever made. When not fawning over perfect word choices, I can be found on the nearest mountain, looking for untouched powder fields and ideal alpine lakes.

Contact me at or via @snowgoli.

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