Renovation of the Campus Observatory

Our Funding Statement

A typical crowd on the deck at a Friday Night Star Party in 2012
The crowd at Friday Night Star Party (circa 2012) illuminated by red lights.

The original wooden deck outside the observatory is nearing the end of its life and building code will not allow substantial repair unless we replace the wood at a cost of about $150,000. We also want to renovate the dome and interior spaces so that the telescope is more accessible.

You have the opportunity now to have a crucial role in these renovations that will improve the Star Party experience for all our patrons.

Early Star Party with Prof Schweighauser at the telescope.
In the 14-inch telescope dome at an early Star Party (UIS Archives)

Over the years, the UIS Star Parties that have welcomed more than 30,000 people to the wonders of the universe. They are one of the very few *free* science education programs for kids and families in Central Illinois, but we need your contribution now to sustain the program’s excellence.

Through your gifts, you will have the power help us educate, interest and transform the perspectives of children.

Many patrons tell us they remember coming as a child and are now bringing their kids or grandkids. Please give generously to sustain this program for many more generations.

Click here to make a donation to the Astronomy-Physics Program fund in support of these projects.

What we are planning

The Deck (Phase I)

The deck is in desperate need of repair.  Replacing it is our top priority.  We have an economical design that incorporates some changes that our 40+ years of experience has taught us.

The design for the new Star Parties Deck on the roof of Brookens Library
The design for the new Star Parties Deck on the roof of Brookens Library

The new design:

  • Uses composite decking materials that meet fire code and minimize maintenance costs.
  • Uses existing footings to minimize the cost.
  • Move the entrance to the deck to the middle of the north side to allow for better crowd management around small telescopes on the east end of the deck.
  • Bump out the southwest corner of the deck, giving us more space and accommodating future changes to the 14-inch telescope enclosure.
  • Move the storage shed off the deck.
  • Move the benches closer to the wall, giving more space on the deck.
  • Replace the red incandescent lights with dimmable red LED strip lighting mounted under the benches.

Estimated cost to replace the deck: ~ $142,000

The Accessibility (Phase II)

The ramp up to the roof door is no longer ADA compliant (it is too steep).  The door to the roof is also oddly shaped and set.  Fitting a replacement to the ramp or another solution in the available space will be a challenge and probably will include moving non-load bearing walls and reconfiguring the storage space for the observatory.

Estimated cost for accessibility upgrades:  ~ $30,000

14-inch telescope in the red light of the telescope dome.
The 14-inch telescope Dome on the roof of Brookens Library is an iconic fixture associated with Star Parties.

The 14-inch Telescope Dome (Phase III)

The 14-inch telescope dome has a raised floor accessed via a short vertical ladder.  The single access door for the dome also slows down how fast we can serve large crowds during Star Parties.  The dome itself is iconic, we couldn’t imaging Star Parties without it, so we want to preserve it.

We are re-imagining the telescope enclosure so that it eliminates the ladder climb and has two doors.  We haven’t settled on a design but we are keeping our options open in the design for the new deck.

Estimated cost to renovate the telescope enclosure/dome:  ~$250,000

The Interior Space (Phase IV)

John Martin answering questions at a pre-show event for Good Night Moon in January 2009
Children about learning about the Moon at a Sangamon Auditorium Event in 2009.

The entry area and storage space for the campus observatory is carved out of the machine room on the 5th floor of Brookens Library.  If the spruced up deck were ever used as a general event space, we would need an adjacent staging area and I dream about the possibility of a small classroom to teach astronomy labs in next to the observatory.

We are exploring the possibilities in that space as well.

A Personal Appeal

John Martin answering questions at a Friday Night Star Party in 2014.
Answering questions from children at a Friday Night Star Party in 2014.

I’ve been inspired by how Star Parties are thought of in the Springfield area.  Astronomy is truly a charmed profession as almost everyone you meet has at least a little curiosity about what you do.  But I don’t get the same reception from a stranger when I say, “I’m a professor of astronomy at UIS” as if I say, “I’m the UIS Star Party guy.” The reputation of UIS Star Parties in Central Illinois is special.

I remember handing out Halloween treats at my house and a kid who after getting candy just stood there and stared at me.  When the crowd on the door step cleared and the kid was alone I asked, “Are you OK?” The reply was, “You are the Star Party guy!”  It has been a joy helping kids look through the telescope week after week, always with a fresh set of questions.  The adults bringing them tell me about how they know this is important to their kid because it is also important to them.

We want to continue the work started by my predecessor Charlie Schweighauser to provoke and satisfy curiosity and reach more people for the next forty years and beyond.  Our community eternally grateful to you and me for making these opportunities possible for them through UIS Star Parties.

More information

Click here to make a donation to the Astronomy-Physics Program fund in support of these projects.

For more information about the planned renovations of the campus observatory please contact John Martin (, 217/206-8342).

Fundraising pledge card for the observatory.
Fundraising pledge card for campus observatory renovations.