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Wednesday, April 4, 2007 05:22 pm

Moon men

A new lodestar will guide watchers of the Springfield sky

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Untitled Document The trek up the concrete steps to the University of Illinois-Springfield’s rooftop observatory is a lesson in endurance. At the top, the open sky awaits. An old sign hanging on the deck greets would-be stargazers with the NASA motto, the Latin phrase per aspera ad astra — “through adversity to the stars.” Charles Schweighauser, 70 years old, makes the climb with relative ease.
For nearly three decades Schweighauser has been host of the Star Parties, the university’s wildly popular astronomy gatherings. More than 120,000 people, he estimates, have looked into space through the university’s telescopes, thanks to the university’s public-affairs outreach program.
For the emeritus professor of astronomy/physics, environmental studies, and English, the parties have been a labor of love, but now it’s time for a change.
This spring, Schweighauser is handing the Star Parties over to John Martin, a new stargazer in town. The well-known professor casts a big shadow, but Martin is ready to shine. He’s not about to let the Star Parties’ luminous appeal fade.

Schweighauser actually retired five years ago, but all that meant, he quips, was an end to his committee work at the university. Even now he teaches classes, and a photo showing him looking through a telescope still adorns the UIS astronomy-physics Web site. When he stops hosting Star Parties, Schweighauser says, he’ll use his newly free Friday nights to do research. Schweighauser’s good nature and dedication go a long way toward explaining the longevity of the Star Parties, one of UIS’s most successful community-outreach efforts, says Margot Duley, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “He’s a wonderful lecturer, just engaging. He’s a very rare person in that his title is professor of astronomy/physics, and environmental studies, and English,” Duley says. “I don’t think there is another professor in the country that works at such a high level.”
The Star Parties went on a three-year hiatus until Duley approved a new astronomer to take over the heavy responsibilities Schweighauser carried for 34 years. Martin — fresh off postdoctoral study at the University of Minnesota, where he was working with the Hubble space telescope — was the perfect fit. The 33-year-old Martin began teaching last fall.
Organizing and hosting Star Parties was a large part of the job description — something Martin was more than happy to take on. “I’ve done this type of thing before, and I really enjoy working with the public and showing people the sky, especially through telescopes,” Martin says. “It’s kind of exciting for me, especially with the tradition here at UIS, because a lot of people show up to these things.”
Martin says that the stars are something he’s always been interested in. Like many young science fans, in childhood he was interested in dinosaurs, but eventually their appeal waned and he turned his attention to space.
“I never outgrew space,” Martin says. During spring Star Parties, revelers get a chance to see a couple of Martin’s favorite space dwellers: Saturn and the moon. “You see [the moon] with the naked eye all the time, but when you look at it with a telescope, or a pair of binoculars, seeing something in plain sight in a totally different way, I enjoy that,” Martin says. “That’s kind of one of the best things to share at Star Parties, to give people an opportunity to look at something in a way they haven’t before.”
Martin shared responsibilities with Schweighauser last fall, but this spring Martin is flying solo. Schweighauser says that Martin will work with him under dark skies all summer at the university’s research facility, 25 miles from campus. Within a year or so, Martin will be able to take over everything, Schweighauser says, although as long as his health remains good he’d like to keep conducting research and teaching. “[Schweighauser’s] been a great resource,” Martin says. “Everybody seems to know him, too, which is another great thing. It’s great to have him around, and his contacts in town, and the way he’s kept the interest up.”

When Schweighauser began teaching, in 1973, Sangamon State University, the forerunner to UIS, was designated the state’s public-affairs university — a place where the community could be engaged in learning and the public-policy leaders of tomorrow could be formed. Schweighauser searched for a way to relate outer space to the university’s mission — and hit upon the idea of Star Parties. Capital-city residents would get an opportunity to study the night sky using the university’s 14-inch reflecting telescope, plus two smaller telescopes on the observatory deck, under the guidance of astronomers. The first party was scheduled for January 1977, but the winter cold kept people away. The regular schedule was changed to Fridays in the spring and fall, and over the years visitors have studied the planets, tracked the comets Hyakutake and Halley, observed eclipses, and searched for constellations and galaxies.
Regulars know the routine, but newcomers can expect a crash course on astronomy as they climb the stairs to the roof of Brookens Library. Black-and-white photos of celestial objects, line the stairwell. Once spectators reach the sky-blue deck they can fix their eyes on this year’s featured attractions: Saturn, the Orion Nebula, Venus, and the moon.
“You have people who have been lots of times, and then you get the mix of new people,” Martin says. “It’s a very friendly environment. Everybody’s just interested in looking at the sky, so we all have something in common right there.”
Michael Verhulst, 20, has been attending Star Parties for several years, and is now a volunteer. He says that the parties appeal to novice and expert alike and that no question is skirted. “[Martin’s and Schweighauser’s] enthusiasm for the subject really shines through — when they talk about it, you can just see that this is what they do. You can tell how much they know about it,” Verhulst says.
Everyone who attends a Star Party becomes a student, Verhulst says.
Martin says that last fall, after the three-year hiatus, people commented that the sky is much brighter near the university than it has been in the past — a result of light pollution from a recent development boom in the area. The extra light means that the weather must be clearer so that clouds don’t reflect light back down to the deck. The first two spring Star Parties were canceled because of cloudy conditions in the area. The astronomers will try again this week, but without stars there’s nothing to see.

The parties have become a somewhat unlikely Friday-night hit. The get-togethers draw an average of 200 people, including a puzzled duo Schweighauser remembers. The term “star party” can be misleading, as Schweighauser learned one night in the late 1970s, when two young women showed up for the astronomy gathering expecting a real party attended by celebrities. “They were dressed to kill and they were looking for a party, and I said, ‘Well you are here,’ ” Schweighauser recalls. The women were good sports about the misunderstanding, Schweighauser says, and even stayed to look through the telescopes for 30 minutes or so. In 1996 Schweighauser hosted a true luminary, the Comet Hyakutake. The observatory’s three telescopes drew a throng of space fans large enough to sell out Sangamon Auditorium’s 2,018 seats. “We opened at 8 o’clock, like we always do, and we finished at 3 o’clock in the morning,” Schweighauser says. “It turned out, the way Hyakutake was situated when it was going around the sun, that as the night progressed it would get higher and higher in the sky.”
He expected a large crowd, but the 2,200 or so who showed up to get a glimpse of the brightest comet to light up the sky since 1976 was a surprise. Schweighauser looked out the door to the observatory at 7:45 p.m. and saw a mass of eager space enthusiasts. Hyakutake drew a rock-star-worthy crowd, even though the closest the celestial object ever came to Earth was 9.3 million miles. “People were lined up outside the door to the observatory probably eight across all the way around, past the Public Affairs Center, and out into the parking lot,” Schweighauser says. The aluminum dome perched atop Brookens Library would soon be bustling. Schweighauser had a long night ahead of him. He yelled to the waiting spectators, “If you stay with us, you will have a chance to see it, because it will be clear all night long.”
“I think most people stayed,” Schweighauser says. “It was quite a night.”
But it wasn’t his best attended. A partial solar eclipse brought out an estimated 3,500 junior astronomers in February 1978. District 186 didn’t hold classes that day, and Schweighauser suggests with a chuckle that the kids were home with nothing to do, so their parents brought them to the observatory. Star Parties are free, so the crew bases attendance estimates on how many come through the dome. Jennifer Hubbell Thomas, a former student of Schweighauser’s and an eighth-grade science teacher at Williamsville Junior High School, has been volunteering at Star Parties for about six years. She particularly enjoys working at Star Parties for individuals with disabilities and their families. Martin says he hopes to start up the Sunday night gatherings again this fall. The first telescope dedicated to people with disabilities, a fixed-focal-point telescope, was custom-made for the UIS observatory. “I see us reaching a group of people who traditionally are not reached through a typical star party,” Hubbell-Thomas says.
Hubbell-Thomas says she sees the parties as just another opportunity to teach the general public about astronomy, the same idea Schweighauser had when he established the parties 30 years ago.
“We just kept going and learning how to do it better and better,” Schweighauser says. “More and more people came, and it’s become quite popular.”
Except for the face greeting eager space fans at the door to the observatory, don’t look for the Star Parties to change, Martin says: “The formula seemed to have worked and kept everybody happy.”

Star Parties start at 8 p.m. every Friday through April 27 at the southeast corner of Brookens Library, on the UIS campus. To make sure that the free event hasn’t been canceled because of weather, call 217-206-7328 after 7 p.m. on the Friday of the party you plan to attend.

Contact Marissa Monson at mmonson@illinoistimes.com.
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