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Look, up in the sky! The best ways to stargaze in Columbia

The Perseid meteor shower peaks on Thursday, Aug. 11 and Friday, Aug. 12. Best viewing will be in the early morning, away from city lights.
The Perseid meteor shower peaks on Thursday, Aug. 11 and Friday, Aug. 12. Best viewing will be in the early morning, away from city lights. AP

Once the sun rises above the horizon, it’s pretty much too hot to really enjoy many outdoor activities these days.

But once it sets and the moon and stars take over the sky, folks can go outside in relative comfort – and enjoy the moon and stars.

Matthew Whitehouse, the S.C. State Museum observatory manager, and Liz Klimek, the museum’s planetarium manager, offer tips on stargazing at their facility and in your own backyard.

Q. The museum has a planetarium and observatory. What is the difference?

Klimek: People often confuse the two, as planetariums and observatories both have domes and both focus on astronomy. A planetarium is a special kind of theater where the night sky and other celestial objects are projected onto a dome-shaped screen. An observatory has a dome that opens so that a telescope can be pointed at objects in the real sky.

Q. What can folks experience with regards to stargazing at the Planetarium?

Klimek: Since the planetarium simulates the night sky, there are never any clouds, bugs, or extreme temperatures! Our digital system also allows us to take folks on a journey through time and space, so we’re not limited to what we can see solely from here on Earth. We have the ability to fly through the stars and even go to other planets.

Q. What can folks experience with regards to stargazing at the observatory?

Whitehouse: During the daytime, guests can come by the observatory and view the sun. We have a special telescope in the observatory that allows museum guests to observe the sun safely without hurting their eyes. You can see spectacular features on the sun such as sunspots, prominences, and filaments, and the sun’s surface features change every day. Sometimes we get lucky and catch a solar flare. At night, we use the big Alvan Clark telescope to look at night sky object such as planets, the moon, stars, nebulae and galaxies. Guests should be aware that reaching the telescope eyepiece requires climbing a sturdy ladder. Sometimes during the day, we use a camera to show a live image of the sun on a large screen (we do this more often when the sky is partly cloudy, or during the winter when the telescope eyepiece is very high off the floor). At night, guests always have to climb the ladder to reach the telescope eyepiece.

Q. Let’s move to backyard, naked-eye stargazing. What is the best way for someone to enjoy looking at the stars at home?

Whitehouse: Just look up! It’s surprisingly simple to enjoy the beauty of the night sky. All you need are your own two eyes. If you can, try to find a spot near where you live that has an open sky (away from large buildings and trees) and that is shielded from nearby streetlights.

Q. Without a telescope, is there anything you can do to see stars better?

Whitehouse: Here in the city, we can’t see as many stars because city lights scatter into the sky. This effect is known as light pollution, and it has a major impact on the number of stars we can see. To get a really good view of the night sky, try traveling to a location far from city lights. If you’re on vacation at one of our more rural beaches or in the mountains, you may notice that you can see many more stars than you can at home.

Q. What is the best time to stargaze at home?

Whitehouse: During the summer months here in South Carolina, the sky is often more clear in the early morning before sunrise. This is because afternoon thunderstorms haven’t had a chance to build up. That said, any time when it’s dark and the skies are clear is a good time to stargaze. Also, if we do have afternoon thunderstorms, it’s not uncommon for the sky to clear after sunset.

Q. What are some things backyard stargazers can look for, and how can they find them?

Whitehouse: This summer, we have three planets in the night sky: Jupiter, Mars and Saturn. Also, look to the east on summer evenings, and you’ll see three bright stars that form a large triangle. These three stars are Vega, Deneb and Altair, and the triangle they form is known as the Summer Triangle. I highly recommend following the observatory on Twitter (@SCSMobservatory); we often tweet updates about cool things to see in the sky.

Q. Is there a “best” or “favorite” spot in Columbia to stargaze?

Whitehouse: I’m biased of course, but the South Carolina State Museum’s Boeing Observatory is a pretty awesome place to stargaze. Even with the city lights, we can see a lot of cool things in our telescope, including planets and more distant objects like nebulae, star clusters and galaxies.

Klimek: You don’t need much to enjoy the stars. The trick is to find a place that’s clear of trees and glaring streetlights. You might not have to go farther than your own backyard. Find a comfortable spot to lay out and gaze up. If you’re patient, you might see a stray meteor go by!

Q. Are there any events stargazers should be aware of this summer?

Whitehouse: The Perseid meteor shower peaks on (Thursday and Friday) Aug. 11-12 and is one of the best meteor showers of the year. Unfortunately, the moon is in the sky for much of the night, making it harder to see the meteors. The best time to see the Perseids is in the early morning, after the moon has set. Viewing from a location away from city lights helps as well.

On (Saturday) Aug. 27, Venus and Jupiter will be extended close together in the sky in an event known as a conjunction. They will be low in the west in the glow of twilight, so you’ll want to go out around 8:15 p.m. to see them. You’ll also want a viewing location with a western horizon unobstructed by trees or buildings.

Looking ahead, we’re getting very excited about the total solar eclipse visible from Columbia next year, on (Monday) Aug. 21, 2017!

Q. Do you have any favorite star stories stargazers can share with children … or to impress dates?

Whitehouse: I love the fact that different cultures often have different names and stories for the constellations. For example, Scorpius the Scorpion is a prominent summer constellation visible in the southern part of the sky. Some Australian Aboriginal groups see Scorpius as not a scorpion, but a crocodile!

Klimek: While every culture has their own set of constellations with their own stories associated with them, there’s nothing preventing you from creating your own set of constellations. Go out with your family or significant other, gaze up at the endless stars, and look for patterns that resemble people or things that are special to you. Make the universe your own!

If you go

S.C. State Museum

▪ The observatory is open daily, and until 10 p.m. Tuesdays during daylight saving time. Once daylight saving time ends, it is open until 8 p.m. Tuesdays.

▪ Go to www.scmuseum.org for museum and observatory hours, and for shows and programs at the planetarium.

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