Catch a glimpse beyond your own world

By Abrar Al-Heeti

Tucked behind Foellinger Auditorium, just past the Main Quad, lies a building where observers can catch a glimpse beyond their own world.

The University’s Astronomical Society hosts open houses at the University Observatory on the first Friday of every month, where visitors can look through the telescope and observe objects in the night sky. If the first Friday is clouded over and visibility becomes an issue, the open house is moved to the second Friday of the month.

What visitors will see is largely dependent on “what happens to be up in the sky that night and the season of the year,” said Bryan Dunne, assistant chair and assistant professor in the Astronomy Department. But typically, they can expect to see objects such as the moon, the planets and star clusters.

Austin Edmister, president of the Astronomical Society, has some advice when visiting the observatory for the first time.

“Go in with an open mind,” he said. “Everybody goes in there and they expect these really amazing color pictures of greens and blues — it’s mostly just like grayscale stuff.”

Edmister also recommends being inquisitive.

“We love questions,” he said. “All of our questions usually end up on really cool conversations. Everybody gets to learn something about astronomy.”

The open house’s starting time changes depending on the time of the year and when the sun sets.

Along with the observatory located on campus, Parkland College is home to the Staerkel Planetarium, a theater that projects programs onto a 50-foot dome screen.

Public shows are held Friday and Saturday nights, and they usually involve a live tour of the sky, said planetarium Director David Leake.

In the 8 p.m. time slot, the planetarium also shows a full-dome movie. This fall, they will be premiering a program called Dynamic Earth, about the earth’s climate engine.

“And the thing we’re really excited about … there’re lots of computer simulations in it that were done right here in town at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications on the U of I campus,” Leake said. “The visualization team there has done wonderful things that have made it in to a lot of these planetarium shows.”

Tickets for the planetarium cost $4 for students, seniors and kids, and $5 for adults.

Leake, along with another University alumnus, Mike Svec, helped create the Friends of the University of Illinois Observatory group about three years ago. The group assists in maintenance and preservation of the observatory. Last year, they led restoration efforts for the observatory’s telescope, which hadn’t been restored for six decades. Svec said the group works with the astronomy department to reach out to alumni for funds and to also gather stories and memories of the observatory.

“For many of us, the Observatory was a significant part of our Illinois experience, and we want to ensure students always have the same opportunity we did,” Svec said in an email. “We were given opportunities and now want to return the favor.”

Svec added, “I hate to admit it but there were times when I spent more time using the telescope than I did doing course work. But isn’t that what a place like Illinois should be doing, providing rich and varied opportunities both in and outside the classroom so you can explore?”

For more information about the University observatory’s open house, go to

To learn about the Parkland’s Staerkel Planetarium, visit

Abrar is a junior in Media. She can be reached at [email protected]