PC astronomy club visits renowned observatory in Wisconsin

Photo provided by Erik Johnson | Left to right, back: Jesus Diaz, Alia Frickensmith, Sage Russell, Katrina Wefe, Isaac McGill, and Jasmine Cai with Parkland’s Astronomy Club visit the Yerkes Observatory in Wisconsin.

Photo provided by Erik Johnson | Left to right, back: Jesus Diaz, Alia Frickensmith, Sage Russell, Katrina Wefe, Isaac McGill, and Jasmine Cai with Parkland’s Astronomy Club visit the Yerkes Observatory in Wisconsin.

Greg Gancarz


Students from the Parkland College Astronomy Club ventured north on a three-and-a-half-hour road trip to tour Wisconsin’s Yerkes Observatory.

The Yerkes Observatory was founded in 1897 and utilized a 40-inch diameter doublet lens refracting telescope, the largest ever successfully put to use in astronomy. The newly-constructed telescope was almost destroyed in a fire while on display at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893.

Famous astronomers such as Edwin Hubble, who did his graduate research there, and Carl Sagan, all studied and worked at the observatory.

Although the telescope and facility are no longer state-of-the-art, Eric Johnson, the astronomy club’s advisor and an astronomy instructor at Parkland. says it is still an important facility.

“This facility may no longer be used for active research, but that only stopped 20 years ago, and they are actively involved in outreach,” Johnson said.

Johnson, who has been with the club about half a decade, takes members to the observatory every year. Sage Russel, who is a new student at Parkland, says she was thrilled to be able to take advantage of the opportunity.

“There isn’t a single thing I would change about the trip, save for maybe hoping for a less rainy day next time. I would love to revisit the Yerkes Observatory at some point. It’s a very beautiful place, both inside and out. It’s on an almost 80-acre ground and the grounds are extremely beautiful, too,” Russel said.

Russel says the telescope was not the only thing visitors to the observatory were able to look at.

“It’s hard to decide what my favorite part of the tour was. The architecture is singular, really, there are so many little hidden designs within the interior and exterior of the observatory,” Russel said. “On the exterior of the observatory, one can find the phases of the moon, the various images of the zodiac, figures representing Rockefeller who was one of the financiers of the University of Chicago, as well as metaphorical designs like the owls that represent wisdom and knowledge and the phoenixes rising out of flames that are said to represent Chicago rising out of the very literal ashes of the Great Fire of 1871.”

At the end of the day, many in the group were most taken with the over 60-foot telescope housed at the observatory. The massive device utilizes novelties such as a raising platform to allow observers access to the telescope’s eyepiece, rather than the more traditional ladder or set of stairs.

Johnson enjoys making the trips with students so he can better give them a sense of the history of astronomy and a real idea of the kind of research that is actively being done in the field. That goal was realized with students like Russel.

“I’m exceptionally pleased that this trip was possible. It’s important to learn about the history of astronomy, especially when the field advances so rapidly,” Russel said. “We’ve come a long way in the last 150 years in the field of astronomy and it’s good to have points of reference for each and every innovation…Also, just aesthetically speaking, it’s a worthwhile trip, because you get to look at unique designs and architecture that is breathtaking and complex.”

Normally, the Parkland Astronomy Club is active with discussions about various field-related subjects to things like examining Parkland’s model solar system. Once or twice a year, the club also takes trips like the recent one to the observatory.

“The club will make a trip to Fermilab in the spring semester,” Johnson said. “They hold public tours on the first Sunday of the month. We plan to visit the planetarium and hold another observing night. However, that is weather permitting.”

Fermilab, short for “Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory,” is a Department of Energy-run physics laboratory located in Batavia, Ill., in Chicago’s western suburbs. Fermilab used to have its own functional particle accelerator known as the Tevatron, which operated from 1983–2011.

Particle accelerators like Fermilab’s Tevatron smash atom-sized or subatomic particles together at extremely high speeds, usually almost to the speed of light, which is about 186,000 miles per second. Researchers then study these impacts to get a better understanding of the subatomic world and the behavior of physics.

Fermilab’s accelerator was shut down in 2011 in light of budget cuts and the opening of the more advanced—and much bigger—Large Hadron Collider in Western Europe.

For more information, students can contact Johnson or visit the Facebook page at facebook.com/parklandastronomy.

“[Students can] contact me to be added to the club page on Cobra, and they can follow the Parkland Astronomy Club on Facebook. Our club meets every Thursday at noon, either in L146, or we are observing the Sun with proper telescopes in the cafeteria,” Johnson said.