Observatory shows off the stars
Melton Memorial Observatory director illuminates the night
By Craig Brandhorst, CRAIGB1@mailbox.sc.edu, 803-777-3681
Every Monday night, weather permitting, Alex Mowery can be found gazing at the sky, directing people’s attention to planets and constellations and anything else overhead that twinkles or shines.
Sometimes he describes what people are seeing as they look through a telescope he’s trained on Jupiter or the Pleiades or the Orion Nebula; other times, Mowery shines a powerful green laser pointer into the darkness above the tree line of the USC campus as he outlines the points of the Little Dipper or fields questions about where and when and for how long people can expect to see Saturn—before the next extraterrestrial attraction takes the ringed planet’s place in the heavens.
An actuarial assistant by day, Mowery moonlights, quite literally, as the director of the University of South Carolina’s Melton Memorial Observatory. That means it’s his job—not to mention his pleasure—to host weekly observations open to anyone interested in learning more about what’s out there.
“The majority of people that come here have never been to an observatory, or maybe never even looked through a telescope before,” Mowery explained on a recent Monday as he set up a trio of portable telescopes on the observatory’s deck prior to that night’s observation.
“There’s that moment of clarity when somebody first sees something. We get comments all the time like, ‘Oh my God, is that really Jupiter? I’ve seen it in a book before but never like this’.”
In fact, the solar system’s largest planet got almost exactly that response not half an hour into that night’s observation, when sophomore computer science major Casey Cole stepped away from a large Schmidt-Cassegrain reflector telescope following her first real glimpse into outer space.
“Even just looking at the telescope is really cool,” said Cole, clearly awed by the experience. “And I just saw Jupiter. My bucket list just got smaller.”
Cole’s friend Logan Judy, a junior majoring in linguistics, had visited the observatory before, but comes back periodically to see whatever’s coming into view.
“I’ve always been interested in this kind of stuff,” Logan explained. “I used to read about the stars when I was little, back when I wanted to be an astronaut. It’s not something that I’ve been able to do as an academic career, but it’s still cool to come reap the benefits of having this on campus.”
Mowery can relate to the students’ thrill. After a childhood spent marveling at the night sky through an inexpensive refractor telescope from the back porch of his parents’ house, he came to USC and quickly discovered Melton and its many charms, including the large 19th century telescope that is still the star attraction—even while out of commission for repairs, as it has been for the past few months.
“This was the first observatory I’d ever even been to,” Mowery explained. “I remember walking up these stairs and seeing this big telescope and just thinking, ‘Awesome, this is the coolest thing’.”
A math major, Mowery took several astronomy courses while at USC and spent more and more time hanging around the observatory. Then, in 2007, he began working as an assistant under longtime observatory director Dan Overcash. When Overcash stepped down as director in 2009, Mowery was his logical successor.
Now the onetime backyard stargazer spends his Monday evenings showing others the universe.
“There are constantly new discoveries these days,” Mowery said. “It’s just a really exciting time to be in astronomy and to try to understand what’s going on out there. To be able to pass some of what I know on to people who may not have cared before or may not have thought it about it is pretty cool.”
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