Total solar eclipse 2017: Columbia, SC

Of all the places along the path of the total solar eclipse that will cross the United States next August, Columbia, South Carolina has some of the most interesting attractions for astronomy buffs. Beyond the spectacle of the eclipse itself, the South Carolina State Museum has a new planetarium due to a recent expansion, in addition to an observatory with a vintage telescope and a 4-D theater. Its exhibits also include telescopes and other artifacts from the collection of Robert B. Ariail, a University of South Carolina alumnus and longtime amateur astronomer and collector who donated his holdings of some 5,000 books and several hundred telescopes to the university and the museum.

South Carolina Solar Eclipse HQ“We have a really wonderful collection of antique instruments—six thousand square feet of historic telescopes—which I think will be great for some of that audience who will come to see this type of thing,” said Tom Falvey, director of education at the museum, which has declared itself solar eclipse headquarters for the August 21, 2017 event. Falvey said Ariail was particularly interested in American-made scopes, and the collection includes 11 Alvan Clark instruments and a couple of Henry Fitz telescopes, one of which dates to 1849 and is believed to be the oldest surviving American instrument made specifically for use in an observatory.

“It’s just a beautiful collection of American instruments totaling 26 telescopes,” Falvey said. In addition, the exhibit has a number of European scopes, including some by John Dollond, early Gregorian reflectors, and some rare Zeiss instruments.

“It’s a great collection, beautifully displayed,” Falvey said. “I think it would be really nice for folks who come with that specific type of interest.”

The museum is planning several days of events leading up to the eclipse, which is on a Monday. They’ll hold a Saturday-night gala, with a guest lecturer or entertainment not yet determined. They’ll be doing tours of the telescope collection and staying open late every day leading up to the eclipse.

“Being open late for us means we would have the observatory open every night; an opportunity for people to look through the big 12-inch Clark telescope and get excited by doing some observing beforehand,” Falvey said. The observatory’s telescope is a 1925 Clark instrument with Zeiss glass that was originally made for Columbia University. Ariail helped bring it to the museum back in the 1990s.

The museum is also the focal point of efforts to prepare others to see the eclipse, and has been working with city officials urging them to create city-wide events next August.

“Plans are truly under way for the next steps for the city to do something all-out to make sure that when folks come here they’ll really see how much fun the city can be and how many great resources we have and the types of things you can do here,” Falvey said.

South Carolina eclipse map

South Carolina eclipse map courtesy

He notes that Columbia has some beautiful downtown areas, thanks in part to a recent boom. He adds that it’s a great place if you like sun and heat, and that South Carolina barbecue can’t be beat. Finally, Falvey says that the people in Columbia are marvelous—and he says that as a New England transplant.

Nobody really knows how many visitors to expect, though Falvey thinks the city can handle the crowds. It has a fairgrounds and the University of South Carolina football stadium, which are right next to each other and can hold a lot of eclipse chasers. Columbia is the capitol city of South Carolina and has ample accommodations. Freeways can bring people into town from all directions, or help them get out if the weather turns bad on eclipse day.

That could be a bit of a problem. Columbia often experiences late-afternoon thunderstorms in the summer—the total eclipse will begin at about 2:43 p.m. there. The hour presents another challenge: school will have started in town, and that’s about when elementary students would typically be on the bus going home.

“(That) could be a real problem and a real shame if people were to miss a total eclipse,” Falvey said. “We are encouraging school districts to extend the school day so that teachers will be able to assist with all the viewing.”

South Carolina is that last state the total eclipse will touch before moving out east into the Atlantic Ocean. It could be a great choice, especially for folks on the east coast.

Podcast of our interview with Tom Falvey:

Brief SCSM video about the Clark telescope:


Astro Biz: Planet Java

Planet JavaMany businesses, products, and places have names rooted in space and astronomy. We’re featuring one every Tuesday on Seattle Astronomy.

This week’s Astro Biz is Planet Java diner in Seattle’s Pioneer Square neighborhood. Described as “a classic American diner,” Planet Java has the ’50s diner look nailed, right down to the black-and-white checkerboard floor. We also found eateries named Planet Java in Fort Langley, B.C., Fresno, California, and Woodstock, Illinois. There’s also a coffee roaster named Java Planet in Tampa, Florida. There’s also a Planet Java web app development company based in San Diego.

More info:


Here come the Perseids

With everyone resting up after last week’s major star parties, this week’s astronomy calendar is on the light side. It does, however, include one of each year’s most anticipated events: the peak of the Perseid meteor shower.

Perseid outburst


Viewing the Perseids. Image: NASA.

There’s a misconception that the Perseid meteor shower is a one-day event, but that’s not exactly the case. We start seeing Perseid meteors in mid-July, but far more of them are visible on the peak days, and this year’s peak has the potential to be better than most.

“Forecasters are predicting a Perseid outburst this year with double normal rates on the night of August 11–12,” said Bill Cooke with NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Office in Huntsville, Alabama. “Under perfect conditions, rates could soar to 200 meteors per hour.”

Be mindful that you’re not going to see nearly that many meteors if you stay in the city; light pollution will wash out all but the brightest of them. For best results, get to a spot away from direct lights—big parks work well for this—and look to the northeast after midnight. Better yet, get to a really dark place, somewhere in eastern Washington or on the peninsula or coast, away from big-city lights.

We’ll have a more detailed article about Perseid viewing later this week.

Jazz Under the Stars

Jazz Under the StarsThe final concert of the year in Pacific Lutheran University’s annual Jazz Under the Stars series is set for 7 p.m. Thursday, August 11. Internationally renowned vocalist Greta Matassa will be the guest artist for the evening. The concert will move indoors if the weather is bad, but if the skies are clear afterward the Tacoma Astronomical Society and PLU physics department will host stargazing at the university’s W.M. Keck Observatory. It’s free!

Astronomy fair

Tacoma Astronomical SocietyThe Tacoma Astronomical Society will host one of its free public days Saturday, August 13 at the Fort Steilacoom campus of Pierce College. This time it’s a special double event, billed as Astronomy Fair XIV. They’ll have activities and information from noon until 5 p.m., then open up again at 9 p.m., weather permitting, for observing through club members’ telescopes.

Up in the sky

The Perseids are the big highlight, but there are lots of objects to see in the night sky. The Sky This Week from Astronomy magazine and This Week’s Sky at a Glance from Sky & Telescope have other observing suggestions for the week.


Astro Biz: Sunfish Seafood

Sunfish SeafoodMany businesses, products, and places have names rooted in space and astronomy. We’re featuring one every Tuesday on Seattle Astronomy.

This week’s Astro Biz is Sunfish Seafood. The restaurant is near the west end of the Alki Beach business district at 62nd Avenue Southwest and Alki Avenue Southwest. Sunfish gets generally good reviews and has a four-star average on Yelp. They may not know about this, as the owners are definitely old school: Sunfish takes cash only, and doesn’t do social media, though there is an unofficial Facebook page.

Sunfish gave us brief pause about the rules for inclusion in Astro Biz. Is the place named after the fish or the Sun? In the end, we decided it didn’t matter. An Astro Biz is an Astro Biz.

More info:


August is star party month

We’ve flipped the calendar to a new page, the Moon will be full tomorrow, and that means that we have star parties galore on the calendar for this week.

Table Mountain

TMSP logoThe Table Mountain Star Party is Washington’s biggest each year, and runs August 2–6 at Eden Valley Guest Ranch near Oroville, Washington. This will be the fourth year the event has been held at this location since a forest fire damaged the original site, on Table Mountain near Ellensburg, in September 2012. Preregistration for the star party is closed, but they will accept on-site registrations, which can be started by visiting the registration page on the organization’s website.

Oregon Star Party

OSP logoThe annual Oregon Star Party will be held from August 2–7 at Indian Trail Spring in the Ochoco National Forest, 45 miles east of Prineville, Oregon. The site is at an elevation of over 5,000 feet and has an unobstructed 360 degree horizon. The Oregon Star Party is considered to have the darkest skies of any major star party in the continental United States. Preregistration for the event is closed, but see the event’s registration page for information about on-site sign-ups.

Mt. Kobau

Mt. Kobau logoThe Mt. Kobau Star Party northwest of Osoyoos, British Columbia is already under way, having begun on July 30. It runs through August 7. Last year this star party ended early and abruptly as a forest fire raged through the area, threatening to cut off the way out for attendees. Fortunately, everyone escaped OK and, miraculously, the fire missed the star party site, allowing it to go on again this year. The site is at 1,800 meters. That’s above 5,400 feet for Yanks! Though it’s already under way you can still register; info is online.

Hurricane Ridge

The second of the Hurricane Ridge Star Party of the summer, organized by the Olympic Astronomical Society, will be held Saturday, August 6 at Hurricane Ridge in Olympic National Park. This star party is open to the public and free, though one must pay admission to the park. The last party of the summer at the site is set for September 3.

Science in the City

Brett Morris

Brett Morris

The Pacific Science Center will kick off a new lecture series called Science in the City this week. The inaugural event will take place at 7 p.m. Tuesday, August 2 in the PACCAR IMAX® Theater at the center. Brett Morris, a UW astronomy graduate student and one of the organizers of Astronomy on Tap Seattle, will talk about recently discovered exoplanets and their diverse and bewildering features. The talk includes a showing of the film A Beautiful Planet 3D. Admission is $10, free for PacSci members.

Club events

Olympic Astronomical Society will hold its monthly meeting at 7:30 p.m. Monday, August 1 in room Art 103 on the Olympic College campus in Bremerton. Program items include presentations about observing and understanding Mira variables, Astronomical League programs, and the brightest supernova in 400 years.

The Tacoma Astronomical Society‘s monthly meeting will be held at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, August 2 in room 175 of Thompson Hall on the campus of the University of Puget Sound. We have not seen specific program information. The club will also offer observing after the Jazz Under the Stars concert Thursday, August 4 in the outdoor amphitheater of the Mary Baker Russell Music Center on the Pacific Lutheran University campus in Parkland. Northwest vocalist of the year Eugenie Jones will be the guest performer this week. The concert begins at 7 p.m. Stargazing commences some time after 9 p.m. at PLU’s Keck Observatory. It’s free.

The Spokane Astronomical Society‘s monthly meeting is slated for 7:30 p.m. Friday, August 5 at the Riverview Retirement Community in the community center building. Topics and speakers for the meeting had not been published as of this writing.

Open House at TJO

Theodor Jacobsen ObservatoryThe twice-monthly open houses at the University of Washington’s Theodor Jacobsen Observatory may be the hottest ticket in town. Tickets for all of the talks for the August events have already been reserved, and the September talks are going fast. The next open house will be held at 9 p.m. Wednesday, August 3 at the observatory. Student Emily Farr will talk about Mars, and volunteers from the Seattle Astronomical Society will give tours of the observatory and, if the weather is clear, offer looks through its vintage telescope.

Up in the sky

Jupiter and the Moon have a close encounter on Saturday, and the five naked-eye planets are all visible in the evening sky in early August. This Week’s Sky at a Glance from Sky & Telescope magazine and The Sky This Week from Astronomy have other observing highlights for the week.




Symposium to tackle dark-sky issues in Columbia River Gorge

It’s still really dark at night in Goldendale, Washington. Goldendale Observatory State Park has been designated as an international dark-sky park by the International Dark-Sky Association, and the area sits at the northern end of what is arguably the best stretch of good, dark, night sky left in the United States, running south through eastern Oregon and even into northern Nevada and California.

“We’re really blessed with dark skies,” said Jonathan Lewis, a board member of the Goldendale Chamber of Commerce who heads up the renewable energy division for Hire Electric in The Dalles, Oregon. “People buy property out here so they can see the Milky Way.”

“We’re close enough to Seattle and Portland that it makes it practical for people to come out here just to enjoy the night sky,” Lewis added.

That sky needs some maintenance.

Threats to the night sky

Goldendale Observatory

The Goldendale Observatory State Park sits on a bluff above the city and has a spectacular view of Mt. Hood. A symposium aimed at preserving dark skies in the Columbia Gorge will be held in Goldendale and The Dalles Aug. 18-19. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

“We’re realizing that the night sky, even in our rural communities, is in danger with the rapid deployment of LED technology, primarily,” Lewis noted. “It’s just getting cheaper and cheaper to do brighter and brighter lights.”

Brighter is not better. The City of Goldendale is in the process of revamping its lighting ordinance, and will soon be upgrading its street lighting. As discussions occurred, Lewis sensed that the lighting people and the lovers of dark night skies were not always on the same page.

“Out of all of that, this idea for a symposium to get the lighting industry professionals and the astronomy folks together in the same place to talk about challenges and ways to make this all happen came about,” Lewis said.

The Gorge Night Sky Symposium

The Goldendale Area Chamber of Commerce, Friends of Goldendale Observatory, and the Mid-Columbia Economic Development District are organizing the Gorge Night Sky Symposium, which will be held August 18-19, 2016, at the Goldendale Observatory State Park and at the Columbia Gorge Discovery Center in The Dalles. The event has also received a significant sponsorship grant from Google, which operates a data center in The Dalles, as well as from a variety of other supporters.

The symposium session Thursday, August 18 at the observatory will feature food and drink as well as a keynote talk from Paul Bogard, dark-sky activist and author of The End of Night: Searching for Natural Darkness in an Age of Artificial Light (Little, Brown, 2013). (Catch our review of Bogard’s talk at Town Hall Seattle from 2013.) The Friday sessions at the Discovery Center will include a presentation by David Ingram, chair of Dark Skies Northwest, the regional chapter of the IDA. There will also be talks about how bad lighting effects wildlife. The afternoon will include working groups about lighting technology, ordinance making, and lighting incentive programs and how to make them work to encourage people to choose dark-sky compliant fixtures.

The symposium has already attracted a pretty thorough list of decision makers, operators of major businesses in the Gorge, and energy services staff from area utilities. Lewis figures this gives them a good chance to reach their goals for the symposium:

“To heighten the awareness, so that when people are out talking in their community or encouraging people to upgrade in their lighting, they add the dark-sky piece to it,” he said, and, “To make it hard for people to buy non-dark-sky-compliant lighting in the Gorge.”

Lighting history in Goldendale

There’s a bit of irony in the notion that this effort has to happen in Goldendale. Amateur astronomers from Vancouver, Washington built the observatory’s primary telescope, a 24 1/2-inch instrument, in the early 1970s. They donated it to the city under the stipulation that it enact a lighting ordinance.

“Goldendale really had one of the first lighting ordinances” in the state, said Lewis, but it’s a bit out of date. “It was based on high-pressure sodium, full shielding, very different technologies.”

On top of that, enforcement of the existing code has been inconsistent at best.

“The lighting has gone sideways a little bit,” Lewis said. “Now, as people are looking to retrofit, we’d like to get a handle on that.”

A good dark sky at night is important to Goldendale, because astronomy tourism has become significant for the local economy. Upwards of 20,000 visitors stop in at the observatory each year, and many astronomy clubs hold observing events in the area.

“The key piece for the Goldendale Chamber of Commerce in our tourism strategy is to get more people to this observatory,” Lewis said. “It’s very important.”

Improvements at the observatory

Goldendale Observatory

Wind power turbines line the horizon as seen from Goldendale Observatory State Park. Photo: Greg Scheiderer.

Lewis noted that there have been positive changes at the observatory of late. Recently hired staff have been an improvement, and the state will invest about $6 million in the park over the next four years. That will pay for refurbishing the main telescope, one of the largest public scopes in operation. The work will essentially bring it up to research grade. They’ll also remodel the facility to include a bigger meeting room and auditorium.

“It’s very exciting what the state parks are doing with this observatory,” Lewis said.

If you would like to attend the symposium, you can register online through the Mid Columbia Economic Development District. The fee for the full symposium is just $55, and there are one-day sessions available as well.

Podcast of our interview with Jonathan Lewis:

More information:


Astro Biz: Sunkist

IMG_1930Many businesses, products, and places have names rooted in space and astronomy. We’re featuring one every Tuesday on Seattle Astronomy.

This week’s Astro Biz is Sunkist citrus fruit. Sunkist sells more than 40 varieties of citrus fruits, including oranges, lemons, limes, grapefruit, tangerines, tangelos, and mandarins. Sunkist fruits are grown on family farms in California and Arizona. They license the Sunkist brand to scores of companies creating fruit products around the world.

We chose Sunkist because we’re continuing our fruit kick; in fact, we spotted this box in the same Coast Starlight train car in which we found the Tropic Moon that we featured last week.

More info: