STATE MUSEUM’S EXPANSION

Columbia’s State Museum paints the night sky in observatory’s first exhibit

jholleman@thestate.comJanuary 2, 2014 

— The first exhibit installed for the S.C. State Museum’s new observatory doesn’t look out into the night sky – or does it?

Exhibit builder Russell Lowery created an image of a sliver of the cosmos designed to make visitors wonder.

The slice of sky will be a bit player in the observatory experience when the exhibit opens this summer and everything else is in place – including a massive 1926 Alvan Clark refracting telescope. But the detail that went into the first exhibit that visitors will see says a lot about what the observatory will be like.

When visitors enter the fourth-floor room, they’ll walk straight to a replica of the small observatory dome built at Erskine College in 1895 to house what is now one of the oldest surviving U.S.-made telescopes. That device, built in 1849 for Erskine by lens master Henry Fitz, was rescued from long-term storage at the school and lovingly restored by Columbia telescope enthusiast Robert Ariail, who donated it to the museum.

The 5.6-inch lens and 7-foot long scope of the Fitz device will be dwarfed by the 12COPY DESK::: fraction alert::::3/8th -inch lens and 15-foot long scope of the Alvan Clark device that will be the working centerpiece of the observatory. And the replica of the Erskine dome is tiny compared to the window to the sky that will be built for the Clark. In fact, the observatory setup made it impossible for the Erskine dome to open to the sky.

But, for now, Lowery and the other museum exhibit builders decided to create a nightscape in the section of the replica of the Erskine dome where the telescope would have looked out if it could. Lowery, an amateur astronomer with five telescopes at home, took the lead role and aimed for authenticity.

“My idea was to think about putting stars in that window that you could see from here,” Lowery said. He checked sky charts and settled on a night in March when, if you actually could see the stars through that window in the dome, you’d see Orion setting. Also in that sliver of the sky would be the M94 cluster, Betelgeuse and several other notable stars or constellations.

Lowery created the darkness of space by painting flat black paint on one side of 1/8th-inch Plexiglas and frosted paint on the other side. He used an opaque projector and that specific night’s sky chart to map the stars. Then he scratched out each speck of light in the black paint using an ice pick.

The light comes from a series of white LED lights enclosed in a specially built cap on the replica dome. And because each star has a different sort of twinkle, Lowery said he didn’t just poke a hole in the paint. Instead, he gave the ice pick just enough wiggle to create spiky holes.

“Every time I created a star, I had to consider magnitude,” Lowery said. “They all had to be different sizes.”

The replica dome had been created for a temporary exhibit of the Fitz telescope downstairs. Moving it to the fourth floor and altering it for the new exhibit took a couple of months. Poking the stars in the night sky took a day.

Lowery said he originally wanted to put the Big Dipper in the fake sky because people would recognize its outline, but that wouldn’t have been accurate.

Tom Falvey, curator of science and technology at the museum, is thrilled with the way the Fitz telescope exhibit has come together.

“It’s going to make an opening statement when you walk in,” Falvey said.

The observatory is slated to open this summer, and Falvey already is thinking about a programming opportunity the following March.

“Wouldn’t it be great to point the (Clark) telescope at the same spot in the sky” as the faux stars in the Fitz-Erskine exhibit, he said.

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