SJR Column: Star Parties, September 2019
Since the University of Illinois Springfield was created nearly 50 years ago, engagement with the community has been central to its mission. That commitment continues to provide countless ways for area residents from preschoolers to seniors to learn, grow and enjoy by engaging in a variety of events and activities across the university calendar.
One of the most popular outreach activities of the University today is also one of the oldest. Star Parties, where visitors are invited to the UIS Observatory to view celestial objects and learn about science and astronomy, were started in 1977 by Professor Charlie Schweighauser, one of the early members of the then-Sangamon State University faculty.
“Everyone is intrigued by the sun, moon, planets and stars,” says Dr. Schweighauser (now retired), “and I saw astronomy as a gateway for making good science available to the public.”
The UIS Astronomy program possesses some of the finest equipment in the state including a 14-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope and four smaller telescopes located on the observation deck atop Brookens Library. The Henry R. Barber Research Observatory, located 25 miles west of Springfield under dark skies, includes a 20-inch Cassegrain telescope.
Since the late 1970s, thousands of people of all ages have come to the UIS Observatory for Star Parties, as well as for special astronomical events like lunar and solar eclipses and comets. At a typical Star Party, visitors learn about galaxies as well as star and constellation identification. Staff and trained volunteers then assist guests in using the telescopes — enabling stargazers to observe objects of interest in the night sky.
It’s not unusual for the program to host 50-100 participants on a clear night. There are even Star Parties for people with disabilities that feature the first telescope ever designed for wheelchair access.
Professor John Martin, who grew up in the Washington, D.C. area, has provided leadership for the Astronomy program since 2006. Dr. Martin developed a deep appreciation for astronomy (the oldest science) at a young age and earned his bachelor’s degree in Astrophysics at the University of Virginia, which at one time owned the largest telescope in the world.
“Starting my freshman year at UVA,” says Dr. Martin, “I would hang out during public viewings at the UVA Observatory – taking measurements and having fun. They eventually asked me to help out, and I worked there for four years. That was my Friday nights!”
Martin went on to earn a Ph.D. in Astronomy-Physics from Case Western University, where he had additional opportunities to study astronomy and work in exceptional observatory facilities.
“The UIS Astronomy program continues to be a valuable part of the public affairs mission of the University,” says Dr. Martin. “It’s human nature to be interested in the sky. Young people are especially impressionable, and astronomy can help kids look at science in a different and more exciting way – a way that can turn into something big later.”
Dr. Martin has made it a priority to collaborate with various organizations and groups to expand the engagement and impact of the UIS program. Those groups include K-12 schools, the Sangamon Astronomical Society. Springfield’s Kidzeum of Health and Science, Lincoln Memorial Garden and Nature Center and Camp Compass for Kids (a free summer learning program for at-risk elementary students in District 186).
This summer, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission to the moon, the program worked with the Kidzeum to offer a special event featuring video footage of the Apollo 11 launch and landing, Neil Armstrong’s historic moonwalk, and discussions about space travel and astronomy.
The program also co-hosted, with the Sangamon Astronomical Society, a series of Summer Star Parties at Lincoln Memorial Garden. The most recent event provided an opportunity for skywatchers to view the Perseids meteor shower – known for producing more fireball-type meteors than any other shower.
After more than 40 years of Star Parties, fundraising is now underway for much-needed renovations of the UIS Observatory including redesign and replacement of the original deck with composite material, improved accessibility for people of all abilities and re-imagining the telescope enclosure for more efficient use.
“It has been a joy helping kids look through our telescopes week after week, always with a fresh set of questions,” says Dr. Martin. “With these much-needed renovations, we’ll be able to satisfy the curiosity of stargazers young and old for the next 40 years and beyond.”
Fall is an ideal time for stargazing in the Midwest, and our 2019 Star Parties are scheduled at the UIS Observatory every Friday evening throughout September and October from 8 to 10 p.m., weather permitting. They are free and open to everyone. Star Party participants meet at the door marked “Observatory” on the southeast corner of the Library.
Sunday night Star Parties are also offered by request for anyone who finds the Friday night events inaccessible due to the four flights of stairs and short ladder climb to the roof where the Observatory is located.. Additional information about Star Parties and other related programs is available at uis.edu/astronomy/about/starparties or by phone at 217-206-8342.
I hope you’ll come join us soon for a night with the stars!
Susan J. Koch is Chancellor at the University of Illinois Springfield.