100th Anniversary Logo


Although we would have loved to invite everyone back to campus to celebrate our 100th anniversary, with the pandemic it was not possible. Instead, we held a virtual celebration of the Department of Astronomy’s 100th year on August 21st at 11am (central time).

We shared some history, some stories of our graduates, and some ideas for our future. We were so happy to see everyone and to hear many great stories while we reminisced and we are pleased to be able to share the recording of the celebration with you.




Speakers included:

Leslie Looney, Astronomy Department Chair
Leslie Looney, Department Chair, Astronomy, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign
Vicky Kalogera, Northwestern, Daniel I. Linzer Distinguished University Professor
Vicky Kalogera, Daniel I. Linzer Distinguished University Professor, Northwestern, PhD Astronomy 1997
Neil Mottinger, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, NASA
Neil Mottinger, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, NASA, BSLAS Astronomy 1966
Venetria K. Patton, LAS Dean, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign
Venetria K. Patton, Harry E. Preble Dean of LAS, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign
Evan Tammen, LAS Advancement, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign
Evan Tammen, LAS Advancement, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, DMA Music 2016
Mike Svec, Professor of Education, Furman University
Mike Svec, Professor of Education, Furman University, BS Physics 1988, unofficial Department Historian

Our History

Astronomy was first taught at the Illinois Industrial University (our original name) in 1868, its very first year, by a professor in the Mathematics Department. By 1872, the University's first observatory had been built. In 1895, the University of Illinois received approval from the State Legislature for a new and permanent observatory to be constructed just north of the Morrow Plots with a 12-inch refractor. The observatory was completed in 1896 and is still in use for educational purposes today-- 125 years later.

In August 1921, the Board of Trustees authorized the Division of Astronomy in the Department of Mathematics to be organized as a separate Department of Astronomy with Professor Stebbins as the Department Head. The following year, Charles Wylie earned the first University of Illinois Ph.D. in Astronomy. The modern astronomy department started in 1951 with the astronomer George McVittie recruited as the new Department Head, expanding to 9 faculty. By 1972, the Department expanded to 15 faculty and the Department had to move out of the Observatory in search of more space. In 1989, the Observatory was declared a National Historic Landmark. At the same time, the new Astronomy Building opened on Green Street and is still the home of Illinois Astronomy. Today, the Department has award-winning faculty, students, and staff who continue Illinois Astronomy's century-long tradition of excellence, innovation, and curiosity.

The Department has had a long and still developing history of engagement with telescopes that ranges from the 12-inch refractor in the dome (with Stebbins groundbreaking work on electronical detection of light), to Mt. Laguna (our first meter class telescope led by Ken Yoss), to the early radio telescopes (i.e. 120 ft and 400 ft led by George Swenson Jr.), to radio interferometers (BIMA and CARMA), to the South Pole Telescope. In recent years, Department faculty have become deeply involved in surveys, such as the Sloan Surveys, the Dark Energy Survey, the Legacy Survey of Space and Time, and many others. These telescopes help give Illinois its distinctive place in modern astrophysics.

The Department also has a proud history of pioneering work in theoretical and computational astronomy. The Department played a key role in the founding and development of the campus National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA), motivated by simulations of colliding black holes by founding director and Astronomy faculty member Larry Smarr and his students and collaborators, as well as foundational work in stellar evolution by Icko Iben and Ron Webbink. Cutting edge computation and data analysis remains a core interest of the Astronomy faculty. In pure theory, McVittie was a well-known cosmological theorist, and his effort to understand the origin and evolution of the universe continues today.

I Remember When...

Please share your memories and stories of the Department of Astronomy with us! We will be collecting them here and sharing them below. If you have photos you would like to include, you may upload them using the form above. We would love to see how the department has changed and grown over the past century.

From James Wehmer:

Back in the olden days of yore we used glass plates for Astronomy. 

Glass plate from a 40-inch telescope, ca.1975
Glass plate from a 40-inch telescope, ca.1975
Lunar glass plates from a 12-inch telescope, ca.1975
Lunar glass plates from a 12-inch telescope, ca.1975


From John Tobin:

I recall my first astronomy classes Brian Fields and Leslie Looney, their energy and passion as teachers helped fuel my interest in the subject and my desire to pursue a career in astronomy. I also recall my first view through a large telescope at the 12 in refractor, looking at the globular cluster M13 and being amazed with the view, even from central campus; I think Rosa Williams was running the telescope that night!

From Rachael Amaro:

UIUC is where I fell in love with Astronomy. The friends I made there have become family and the faculty made the middle of Illinois feel like a world-class frontier of astrophysics. From watching the solar eclipse with the department to looking at the moon through the telescopes behind the campus observatory, it felt like there were never ending possibilities!

Rachael Amaro and others at Astronomy
Rachael Amaro and others at Astronomy

From Mallory Conlon:

My science outreach adventures started as a student within the astronomy department and as a member of UIAS. Here is a picture from our first UIAS meeting in 2012! I love seeing how room 134 has changed throughout the years.

First UIAS meeting in 2012
First UIAS meeting in 2012

From Scott Kenyon:

Memories of Illinois:
Fragments, vignettes recaptured.
Times long past, places far away;
Scenes remembered, voices heard.

Arby's, Trenos, Papa Del's,
Dorm friends on Sunday nights.
Corn, soybeans; soybeans and corn,
All green, but no mountain heights.

Frisbee football in the Quad,
Pickup hoops took me away.
Milk shakes, salads, and burgers
In a long-shuttered cafe.

Kansas, Ronstadt, Fleetwood Mac;
Cool concerts in Assembly Hall.
Steve, Fred, Mark, and Susie too;
SF nights in Daniels Hall.

Janet, Marty, Melanie;
Old movies in a classroom.
Billiards, foosball, fast ping pong;
Chess tourneys in the Union.

Tee shirts, gloves, and softball bats;
Practicing in sun and snow.
Frigid nights, blustery wind;
Rocky Horrow Picture Show.

Symphonies, string quartets;
Fine music in the Krannert.
Basketball team was first rate,
But the football team inert.

By the corn field, on the lawn,
Constellations bright and clear.
Guests and students see ancient light,
Old refractor long held dear.

Driving down, don't you get lost;
Past wildflower, blueberry;
Paper tape and image tubes,
Telescope on the prairie.

Allan, Dennis, and Philip,
Dust and moths in the Basement.
New office in A C B,
A fantastic replacement.

Stars, Nebulae, Galaxies,
Colloquia ev'ry week.
Physics classes, lunch time talks;
Fun science by Boneyard Creek.

Walking along the sidewalk,
Carrying cards to the Cray.
Long afternoon discussions
With Icko, Jim, Ron, and Jay.

Novae and symbiotics,
Plus those Hubble-Sandage stars
Took me on an endless search
Through libraries near and far.

In an east coast library,
Studying disks and planets.
Great to think of Illinois,
And all its fine enchantments.

From Stephen Licata:

I have so many fond memories of the Astronomy Department and the UIAS. As an Aerospace Engineering freshman in Fall 1978, I was amazed to learn that the 12-inch refractor was available to students and, of course, the Observatory Open Houses were immensely popular. In my sophomore year (1979-1980) as UIAS President, I was so grateful to the several department professors who offered to give lectures, and slowly we built up a cadre of officers and passionate new club recruits that directly lead to the outstanding work now done through the Friends of the Observatory. In the Fall 1980, I started single-semester internships at a NASA flight research center (Edwards AFB) that eventually led to a dream job at the Jet Propulsion Lab. Now in my subsequent visits to campus (online or in person) I am able to interact with the Department as both an astronomy enthusiast and fellow space research colleague. Congratulations to the Department of Astronomy on its one hundredth anniversary for all the new discoveries you make and your inspiration to generations of astronomy enthusiasts.

From Neil Mottinger:

I’ve enjoyed looking through the archives at the ‘event’ site, and would like to offer the attached two images for a possible update on your web page. These were taken by a budding portrait photographer on our street who wanted to demonstrate the quality of images he felt the Mars 2020 project team were deserving.

Neil Mottinger "On Mars" (Mars 2020 Project Team)
Neil Mottinger "On Mars" (Mars 2020 Project Team)

From Mike Crouch:

I was a physics & astro major in the early 1980's. Astronomy proved to be my greatest academic love. I will never forget classes in the Astronomy Building (then at 1011 Springfield) with Profs Ken Yoss, Jim Truran, and Susan Lamb. These professors kindled my passion for astronomy that continues to this day (I'm completing my MS in astro within the next year). The library in the former Astro building was wonderful - small, quiet and trees outside the windows - a perfect place for thought and research!