Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Astronomy Program - So Much to Offer

By Melanie Cain

Over 50 years ago, Charles Schweighauser began working in the field of astronomy. After studying the subject in college, he was director of St. Louis' McDonnell Planetarium during the 1960s; then, in 1975, Schweighauser became this campus’ resident astronomer.

Astronomy -- the science of stars, planets, black holes, galaxies, and the universe -- holds a fascination for people of all ages. As Schweighauser says, “We are the children of stars,” meaning that all humanity somehow shares a connection to the long history of the stars.

In the spring of 1977, the first Friday night star parties were held at the campus observatory atop Brookens Library. Since then, more than 120,000 people have taken part in fall and spring star parties, which average about 200-300 visitors each time. Visitors to a star party can use three different telescopes to look at the moon, planets, deep sky objects, and constellations. Hundreds of pictures of various sky findings are mounted throughout the observatory as well.

The observatory also opens its door for special celestial events, such as eclipses and comets. In 1996, the Comet Hyakutake drew one of the biggest crowds -- over 2,000 people -- to the observatory. In 1994, the observatory played a large role in the study and viewing of a solar eclipse when program staff provided information to local and even national newspapers. They also provided live television feeds to NBC, CBS, ABC, and CNN, as well as schools throughout Illinois through the Illinois Office of Education.

Although the observatory provides many excellent viewing opportunities for area residents, the astronomy program also does a great deal of research. Facilities include the main campus observatory, along with two other research observatories located in the Springfield area, and equipment includes one 8-inch and one 14-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope, one 6-inch and one 8-inch Newtonian telescope, a 20-inch research telescope, a diffraction grating spectrograph, a hydrogenalpha filter, an objective prism, and a charge-coupled device. The program also owns another telescope with a fixed focal point that was designed for people with disabilities. Schweighauser developed the idea for this telescope himself and it was built in 1997, the first of its kind.

The main research goals of the program are to characterize what stars are doing, how they formed, and how they are evolving. Students are also working to fill in the Hertzsprung-Russel (HR) Diagram, which will help researchers understand why stars do what they do. Schweighauser and his students constantly share their research with other individuals all around the world.

The program currently offers 10 classes, such as Survey of the Universe, Astrophysics, Observational Astronomy, and Galaxies: Structure and Evolution. While UIS students cannot earn a degree in astronomy/physics, they can pursue an individualized degree that includes astronomy-physics through the individual option or liberal studies programs.

Asked what he enjoys most about working in the field of astronomy, Schweighauser simply states, “I enjoy it all!” He truly loves the public outreach of the UIS program, and he also enjoys working with students of all ages. “The past 30 years here have been the best times of my life.”

If you want to learn more about the astronomy program at UIS, visit www.uis.edu/astronomy or send an email to asp@uis.edu.

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