A very ‘spatial’ place

Florence's observatory-planetarium offers glimpse at our neck of the sky

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In 1964, America was having an interesting time. We were in the middle of the Vietnam War, an album from a UK band called “The Beatles” was just introduced in the U.S. and the space race was going strong with businesses and the government investing in math and science. Fortunately for Florence State College in Florence, Alabama (now known as the University of North Alabama), and the local Florence Astronomy Club, an observatory and planetarium were proposed for the campus. The observatory was built in the same year with the addition of the planetarium two years later. Ever since, Florence has had the convenience of stargazing without any cost or lengthy drives into the country.

“I’ve been here since 2008 and finishing up my tenth year here at UNA,” said the planetarium’s current director, Mel Blake. “I’ve been having a lot of fun between the planetarium, teaching and research, it keeps me busy.”

Originally from Canada, Blake is the fourth director of the planetarium and works in the Department of Physics and Earth Sciences. The department operates the planetarium and also allows Blake to teach physics and astronomy courses, research stars and work on research regarding asteroids.

Since his employment, the observatory-planetarium has purchased new equipment, remodeled with theatre-style seating and now offers weekly public showings every Tuesday, which include viewings, information and discussions about the stars, planets and constellations.

“On our usual public tour night on Tuesdays, I do about a 20- to 25-minute discussion on the constellations and whatever is up in the sky, such as a meteor shower coming up or any planets visible in the sky,” Blake said.

“I tell some stories about the constellations because they all have stories and mythologies associated with them. After that, if the weather is nice, we take the telescope and look at some objects through the telescope, and then we always try to leave time at the end for questions and such.”

If the weather does not permit, instead of looking through the telescope, Blake uses projectors to project an astronomy show on the dome.

“Since the eclipse last summer, our public attendance and interest that we have has gone up. A lot of people forgot we had a planetarium and then during the solar eclipse events people came back, not even knowing the place is still running.”

The observatory-planetarium holds events for holidays, including Valentine’s Day and Christmas, celebrates monumental space events such as eclipses, shuttle returns and discoveries, and even hosts themed events — for example, The Stars over Hogwarts, where Blake produced a star chart with characters from the series and the stars they were named after.

Blake says he is currently in talks with the LaGrange Historical Society, after helping refurbish their own observatory, and has made contact with the Natchez Trace Association, a nearby national park, for future events with the public. Although it may not have picked up much traction around the beginning, the observatory-planetarium in Florence is certainly growing with more events to come to help satisfy those interstellar, “spatial” needs.