Carolina stargazing

Melton Memorial Observatory to host sky and eclipse viewings

Astronomers at the Melton Memorial Observatory are ready to serve as your tour guide of the night sky on Mondays this spring and summer.

Located on Greene Street near the Horseshoe, the almost 90-year-old observatory is free and open to the public on Monday nights year round. It’s home to a 16-inch Cassegrain telescope in the dome and other small telescopes on the observatory deck that make seeing the moon, planets and stars easy.

Clear, spring nights present the perfect opportunity to stargaze, and with weather consistently improving in April, Melton management anticipates an influx of sky-watchers in the coming weeks.

A couple of recent celestial events also have generated interest in astronomy, says Steve Rodney, professor in the physics and astronomy department. The supermoon last fall and the upcoming total solar eclipse Aug. 21 are turning people’s eyes skyward. Columbia has been identified as one of the top places to experience the first total eclipse to cross the entire continental U.S. in almost 100 years.

As the moon passes directly in front of the sun on the afternoon of Aug. 21, the darkest part of the moon’s shadow will briefly fall across Columbia and the surrounding region.  Observers in Columbia will experience about two and a half minutes of “totality” — the period when the sun is completely obscured by the moon.  This is one of the largest stretches of darkness for any city along the path of totality.

“Once it gets to totality, the sky will go as dark as deep twilight, bright stars will become visible, and the temperature will drop by five to 10 degrees,” Rodney said. “It’s a completely different kind of experience than a partial eclipse.”

Eclipse-chasers from all over the world are planning trips to Columbia to view the eclipse in the path of totality. NASA and other eclipse experts estimate that South Carolina could expect 1 million visitors to the state, with the majority traveling to the Midlands, for this once-in-a- lifetime event.

The University of South Carolina is planning several events for students, faculty and the community before and on the day of the eclipse.

  • Yale University solar physicist Sarbani Basu will give a public lecture at 7 p.m., Aug. 18 at the W.W. Hootie Johnson Performance Hall in the Darla Moore School of Business. Her talk will cover history of eclipses, what this event means in the context of modern solar physics and what people can expect on the afternoon of Aug. 21. Learn more on the physics and astronomy department’s website.
  • The physics and astronomy department is planning to set up eclipse information stations throughout campus on Aug. 21. The stations will include student volunteers serving as guides to tell people what to look for and how to safely observe the eclipse. Volunteers are currently being recruited. Students do not need a background in astronomy but must have a willingness to serve and answer questions. Training will be provided. For more information or to volunteer, contact Steve Rodney at
  • The university is working with various local public and private organizations in planning for Total Eclipse Weekend, a series of events throughout the Columbia area. Learn more at the eclipse website.

The eclipse may still be a few months away, but be sure to spend a Monday night or two at Melton to learn more about the wonders of the night sky. The observatory is open 8 to 10 p.m. through April and 9 to 11 p.m. May through September, weather permitting.

Get the latest weather updates and news about Melton’s hours and events on the website and follow the observatory on Facebook and Twitter.

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