Observatory, planetarium share the wonder of space with those on Earth

  • Posted: Friday, July 12, 2013 9:17 a.m.
Staff Photo by Stephanie Turner
This “Saturn Fresco” creation by Italian artist Salvatore Adamo Scalisi hangs in the Ruth Patrick Science Education Center. Dr. Clark and Paula Moore donated it to the center in October 2006.
Staff Photo by Stephanie Turner This “Saturn Fresco” creation by Italian artist Salvatore Adamo Scalisi hangs in the Ruth Patrick Science Education Center. Dr. Clark and Paula Moore donated it to the center in October 2006.

When you gaze up at the night sky, a cascade of shimmering stars blinks back at you. You might not think in that moment that far beyond the sky is a whole other universe itching for your attention.

Two local men paid attention.

David Boyd of Boyd Observatory and Dr. Gary Senn of the DuPont Planetarium approach the study of the stars in their own way.

Why planetariums?

Boyd has been tied up with astronomy for years.

He taught lab astronomy at the College of Charleston before he and his wife moved to Aiken. In April 2000, Boyd Observatory opened up beside Boyd Pond.

“It’s hard to look up and ... not experience some part of the feeling that you are connected to something bigger than yourself,” he said.

But he and Senn know that the students who come out to the planetarium and observatory might not necessarily want to pursue astronomy as a career.

Boyd, for example, said seeing and exploring the computers he has on-site could still have an impact.

“It’s a stepping stone to other kinds of thought patterns in technology and science,” he said.

And Senn, sitting in his office and signing off his emails with the center’s goal of “infusing a love for science, technology, engineering and mathematics,” agrees with Boyd.

“We are interested in getting people to understand more about the world around them and the universe around them,” Senn said.

He said the programs the center provides helps to do that.

“They see that this is interesting and fun. They have a rare desire to learn,” Senn said. “What we want to do is provide experiences that ignite a spark.”

Exploring the outer world

Since Boyd started Boyd Observatory, he has aimed his programs toward children.

Of course, adults are always welcome, too, he said.

He lets his audience guide some sessions with their questions, while having some mapped out.

A program of his includes “What’s in the Sky Tonight?”

He teaches lessons on the mythology behind the stars, going beyond Greek mythology.

Boyd acknowledges other tales such as those of the Chinese and Plains Native Americans.

“Everyone had skylore,” he said. “Everyone looked up at the sky and said, ‘Well, what is that?’”

And he teaches the lowdown on astronomy – what is a star, how far is it from us, etc.

“You gain an appreciation for life,” Boyd said on why he got into the subject.

He will open up his observatory, even when there are no programs; it’s just a matter of timing on his and the sky’s part.

“Anytime it’s a clear night, you can see some awesome things,” he said.

When a major event is scheduled to occur, Boyd will try to make his observatory ready.

This fall, for example, Boyd and Senn are expecting the arrival of the great comet.

“Great comets are rare,” Boyd said. “If it works out, it will be a naked eye comet, visible to anybody in the night sky.”

But, when there is no special occasion, the observatory is open for the first and third Saturdays of the month.

Senn has been the director the DuPont Planetarium since 1996, a year after it opened at USC Aiken’s Ruth Patrick Science Education Center.

Since then, the center has aimed at hosting an array of programs.

Astronomy is usually the main focus.

“But we don’t want it be our main focus,” he said.

Sessions include “Blown Away: Wild World of Weather,” which teaches facts like the sun’s impact on and the creation of weather, and “Explorers of Mauna Kea,” which focus on the dormant Hawaiian volcano Mauna Kea.

The reason for branching out is to appeal to all interests, Senn said.

Students come on field trips during the school year or during summer camps.

Different staff members within the education center mainly operate the observatory.

However, the Astronomy Club of Augusta occasionally comes to host events and guest lecturers.

One of those times has involved a man performing as Johannes Kepler.

“He was the first man to really understand planetary motions,” Senn explained of Kepler. “So that’s kind of fun.”

The next scheduled shows are the “Explorers of Mauna Kea” at 8 p.m., and the Digistar “Laser” Fantasy at 9 p.m., on Saturdays through July.

The power behind the planetarium

The Boyd Observatory is the home to a 17.5-inch Newtonian telescope and a 12-inch fully rotating aluminum dome.

It is located outside of Aiken, off S.C. Highway 302.

When Boyd first searched for a location, he knew somewhere away from the city lights would have been perfect for star gazing.

However, it wouldn’t have been perfect for attracting an audience.

Now, 13 years later, he knows Boyd Pond was the right choice.

“It’s safe. There’s parking. There are clean bathrooms. Parents can bring their children out there, and it’s a known location,” Boyd said.

And as far as those bright city lights go, “there’s still cool things to see even in a brighter sky.”

The DuPont Planetarium’s centerpiece is one of its oldest pieces – the Digistar II, according to Senn.

“We were the third to have ever installed one in the world (when we opened),” Senn said.

Almost 20 years later, the same system still sits in the planetarium.

“It projects up to 9,000 stars down to the eighth magnitude, or a measure of brightness of the star,” he said.

The planetarium also operates on slide projectors, which Senn admits has been a trial lately due to changes in technology.

Centers who have converted their equipment, though, will donate their old equipment to DuPont, he said.

Shining on the inside of the planetarium dome is the Camera Obscura – a device that can project images without using a lens.

“The Camera Obscura works in a dark room or a box with a hole on one side of it. From this single tiny hole come images of objects from outside the room to the wall on the other side of the hole,” according the planetarium’s website.

There is also an observatory at the top of the Ruth Patrick center available for more star-gazing. There you will find five telescopes – the 16-inch Bechtel Telescope; the 17.5-inch Dobsonian reflecting telescope; the 8-inch Meade Schmidt-Cassegrain catadioptric telescope with a full-aperture solar filter; the 90-mm Orion Skyview refractor telescope with a full-aperture solar filter and the 40-mm Coronado Personal Solar Telescope.

Two sundials also sit outside the facility.

For more information on Boyd’s Observatory, visit www.boydobservatory.org.

For more information on DuPont Planetarium, visit www.rpsec.usca.edu/planetarium.

Stephanie Turner graduated in July 2012 with a journalism degree from Valdosta State University and lives with her family in Evans, Ga.

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