Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star; Star Light, Star Bright; and I See the Moon: the list of astronomy-themed children’s literature and lullabies goes on, a clear indication that for many years humans’ fascination with the night sky has been ingrained at an early age. Early civilizations used the sky to tell time, orient themselves, and attempt both to explain the origins of the world and predict its future trajectory. These practical applications of astronomy pale in comparison to an experience like watching a meteor shower, also known as shooting stars.
Traditionally, stargazing creates a sense of connection between people across town and across the globe. The North Star, or Polaris, has been used in fairy tales and folklore but also in real life as a compass to guide centuries of sailors, hikers, and lost souls alike back home. This star, located on the tip of Ursa Minor (the Little Bear) is known for its prominent visibility in the Northern Hemisphere — from Columbia, South Carolina, to Colombia, South America.
Martin Bowers, manager of the University of South Carolina’s Melton Observatory, says that when it comes to finding the illustrious North Star, “The Big Dipper is important because you can use the two big stars at the bottom of the bowl to point out the North Star, Polaris.” From there, stargazers can use traditional sky maps and even smartphone applications to locate and identify other stars and constellations such as Arcturus, Spica, and Pegasus.
When he is not at the university’s observatory, Martin, like many amateur astronomers, conducts much of his stargazing from his backyard. Prime stargazing conditions consist of an open sky on a clear evening, the latter of which tends to be a rarity in South Carolina, given the state’s notoriously humid weather. Matthew Whitehouse, the South Carolina State Museum’s observatory manager, explains that seasonally, early fall typically offers the most opportune viewing conditions. Compared to murky summer skies and “wintry mix” weather from December to March, fall evenings are relatively clear.
When the stars align and the ideal combination of a clear evening, free of light pollution, does occur, it makes for what is known to the astronomy community as a “dark sky.” Matthew explains that while South Carolina has no true dark sky preserves due to the levels of light pollution and humidity, a few places come close. Remote beaches like Edisto Island and state parks such as the Midlands’ own Congaree National Park top the list. Matthew has spotted the Milky Way from both Isle of Palms and a campground at Congaree National Park.
Fortunately, light pollution does not affect the visibility of the sun, moon, or planets. Brighter deep sky objects, including star clusters, nebulae, and galaxies beyond the Milky Way, are also visible from urban environments. Varsha Kulkarni, Ph.D., professor of astronomy at the University of South Carolina, tells city stargazers, “In spite of USC’s location in downtown Columbia where light pollution is quite severe, we can see some deep sky objects. It’s a perfectly fine place to see planets.”
Spectators looking through the museum’s nearly 100-year-old refracting telescope — which uses lenses, as opposed to a reflecting telescope, which uses mirrors — have been known to spot star clusters, Orion’s Nebula, and galaxies beyond the Milky Way, among other celestial objects. In fact, for those who know what to look for, the Milky Way is a fairly commonplace sighting in the Midlands. In addition to Congaree National Park, Matthew says that the western end of Lake Murray can be a hot spot for stargazing and Milky Way sightings, particularly from a boat in the middle of the body of water. “I’ve actually gotten some pretty decent sightings at Shull Island, off Highway 378 after you’ve passed through Lexington,” he says.
For those who prefer to stick within the city limits, the University of South Carolina’s Melton Memorial Observatory, named after former university President William Davis Melton, offers an additional downtown venue for stargazers. The 16-inch Cassegrain reflecting telescope — which also happens to be nearing its centennial year — is accessed from a spiral staircase inside the building on Greene Street, easily recognized by the turquoise dome that sits atop. As with the museum’s observatory, objects such as the moon, planets, stars, star clusters, nebulae, and galaxies all fall quite literally within the purview of the Melton Observatory.
On an average evening, at least two portable scopes are set up at the Melton Observatory, in addition to the 16-inch Cassegrain. For special events, Martin and the Melton team are apt to bring out the big guns — three telescopes of varying diameters, accompanied by laptops, cameras, and both white light and solar filters. Martin recalls Veterans Day 2019 for which the full cast was called to perform when Mercury passed in front of the sun. For this spectacle, he used a narrowband solar filter to view the sun safely while simultaneously bringing out details that are otherwise difficult to see, such as prominences in the sun’s terrain.
While Mercury’s 2019 transit of the sun and the 2017 solar eclipse stand out as highlights in the recent history of stargazing, the night sky renders awe-inspiring displays on a regular basis. Just this past summer, a pair of double stars — two stars that are gravitationally bound to each other — were on view for several weeks. In August, the pair known as Albireo landed within the Summer Triangle — a set of three bright stars, each from a different constellation. Martin describes seeing a Double Double through the Cassegrain in late July. “With a lower power, it will look like two stars, but when you push the magnification a little higher, you can see that each of those individual stars is a tight pair of two stars.”
In addition to Doubles, Double Doubles, star clusters, galaxies, and nebulae, stargazers in the Midlands should also be on the lookout for instances of planetary opposition. This occurs when Earth is positioned between the sun and a planet or another celestial body. As the summer came to a close, Saturn made its way into opposition, coming to a point in its orbit at which it was exactly 180 degrees opposite the Sun. Neptune, Jupiter, Uranus, and Mars will follow suit throughout the fall and onset of winter.
Transits, oppositions, and Double Doubles only begin to illustrate the magnitude of what modern day technology allows astronomers to see, study, and appreciate. John Adams Hodge, a longtime member of the Midlands Astronomy Club and NASA Solar System Ambassador, says of the modern era of astronomy, “We really have a renaissance in terms of discovery with the James Webb Telescope that is now producing images.” Like those of the Hubble Space Telescope, these images will continue to augment scientists’ understanding of all things celestial.
For those wondering what the buzz was all about with the James Webb Telescope images, the Midlands Astronomy Club is the right place to go. For more than four decades, the MAC has welcomed astronomers of all levels of expertise. John describes the group as a fun bunch, all of whom bring a different interest to the table — or telescope. By and large, the club is a shared space, where members can share tools, tips, and tricks, but most of all, share experiences.
“The thing about MAC that’s fun is that everybody has different interests, but you learn from one another. Some people just want to learn constellations, others to identify craters on the moon, others galaxies, and still others star clusters. Several club members submit data and observations to professional astronomers to assist in scientific research.” Members have the opportunity to try their hand at any combination of these stargazing activities through club-sponsored events, such as monthly meetings and “star parties” — observing sessions held in an open country field, far away from the city’s light pollution.
The MAC also hosts once-monthly “sidewalk astronomy” viewings on Main Street, which offer passersby the chance to catch a glimpse of Saturn’s rings, Jupiter’s belts, or the ice caps on Mars. Frequently, John and other MAC members witness the first time someone looks through a telescope, which he describes as the beginning of a personal voyage of discovery. “When you see the moon and the planets in a telescope for the first time, all of a sudden the pictures you see in a magazine or on the internet really come alive.”
John, Martin, Matthew, and Varsha all speak to the same sentiment that it’s perfectly fine to be an amateur. “That’s how we begin,” Varsha says. As a professor, she is well versed in the practice of growing amateur astronomers into accomplished academics. A number of students had the opportunity to collaborate with Varsha this past fall on various projects, including planning for observations with the James Webb Telescope. Under her leadership, her team is studying the composition of interstellar dust in faraway galaxies in order to try to understand how dust grains in other galaxies compare to the dust grains in our galaxies. The relevance of this research, she explains, is twofold: first, with better knowledge of the composition of dust grains, astronomers can estimate more accurately the level of dimming that dust grains cause and in turn better estimate the true brightness of other galaxies. Additionally, dust grains provide the seeds for the formation of planets (a process that can take millions of years), which makes them fundamental to understanding how planetary systems form.
In the meantime, stargazers can enjoy observing the planets in our own planetary system, such as Jupiter, Saturn, and Mars, come into view. In fact, according to John, with just a pair of binoculars, aspiring astronomers can find the same four moons on Jupiter that Galileo spotted with his 16th-century telescope. Varsha says that for many meteor showers, the naked eye is the only equipment needed. “All you need is a dark site, sufficiently away from city lights.”