Family Travel

Kerry Egan

SOUTH CAROLINA INSIDER

 

Starry nights

Posted 6/18/2013 11:59:00 AM

Nothings beats gazing at the stars. 

Except, perhaps, looking through a powerful telescope and actually seeing Saturn's rings.

Melton Memorial Observatory at USC gives people the chance to look at the moon, stars, and planets --and yes, Saturn's rings -- through the observatory's telescopes

The observatory -- a little golden tower topped with a copper-green dome -- looks like a fairy-tale itself. The night we went, light poured out of the wide-open door at the base, but no one was inside. A sign told us to climb the staircase, an ancient, twisting, black iron contraption spiraling upwards into blackness and lined with red Christmas lights.

"Ooooh! So spooky!" Mary Frances said in her most approving voice.

When we reached the top, we found ourselves in a dark, round room with a high domed ceiling and a red telescope. The telescope, from the 1920s and currently being refurbished, stretched to the top of the observatory's dome.

An older man appeared in silhouette at the door, waved at us to follow him, and said, "Everything's out here."

Outside on the walkway that encircles the building, we found a cluster of people around a fat, modern telescope looking at Mercury. The kids were impressed by the telescope, but seemed unimpressed by the planet, just a glowing dot in the eyepiece.

But next came Saturn, glowing bright white, with rings as visible and obvious as the nose on your face.

The first and only other time I saw Saturn's rings -- really saw them through a telescope, not a photograph -- was in college. But the second time was as just as oddly thrilling. And the children were actually breathless the first time they looked. "Is it real or a sticker?" one asked.

Equally thrilling for the children was the green laser pointer that the director of the observatory used to point out the stars in the sky. The laser pointer, we learned, can ignite a match and pop a balloon in seconds, but cannot cook an egg.

And the last thrill of the night was the enormous toilet in the bathroom downstairs, a toilet that also looked like it was an original from the 1920s. Jimmy and Mary Frances don't always need a telescope to see amazing things.

Melton Observatory is located on the campus of the University of South Carolina at 1429 Greene St., Columbia. The observatory opens every Monday night at dusk for two hours, depending on the weather. For exact hours each week, see their website. Admission is free.

Insider Tip: This is definitely a trip for older, school-aged children. The telescopes are fragile pieces of equipment, the observation deck is very narrow, the spiral staircase is steep, skinny and goes up for a long time, and the activity, by its nature, has to happen in the dark. I know this combination would have been too much to ask from my two when they were toddlers.