Capturing the Stars

Who would expect a small town in southeast Wisconsin to be the birthplace of modern astrophysics?

In 1897, the University of Chicago opened the Yerkes Observatory in Williams Bay, Wisconsin. The first astrophysical observatory associated with a university and site of the largest refracting telescope in the world, Yerkes changed the way astronomers practiced astronomy. For more than 110 years, professors and students of the Astronomy Department utilized the facility for observation, conducting research, and helping to build the international astronomical community.

Exterior of Yerkes Observatory at dusk. The main entrance is at the left, with the small dome on the right.

In collaboration with the Yerkes Future Foundation, the University of Chicago is working to preserve the historic and scientific legacy of the observatory. And although methods of astronomical research have certainly changed, Yerkes’ collection of more than 175,000 glass plate photographic negatives and logbooks continue to support astronomical time domain research around the world, including variable brightness of stars and galaxies, changes of novae, and records of one-time events like eclipses.

The advent of astronomical photography revolutionized the field, capturing long-term, sensitive, and stable exposures of the sky to be studied away from the telescope. More than 2.4 million glass plates exist in the US and Canada alone! However, it has proven difficult to both preserve the plates and extract the data despite the clear historic and scientific value. By researching and sharing financially accessible methods of digitization, we aim to provide attainable specifications for unlocking data on plates in collections at all different types of repositories.

For more information about the project, or any of the Yerkes materials in the UChicago collection, please contact the Yerkes Project Team.

The International Glass Plates Group

The University of Chicago is also a founding member of the International Glass Plates Group, an informal network of astronomers, historians, archivists, librarians, museums, universities, libraries, and observatories who study or care for astronomical glass plates.

Featured press

See the winning images of the inaugural UChicago "Science as Art" contest, UChicago News, March 2021

Biographical Sketches of Women Working at Yerkes Observatory and Harriet McWilliams Parsons, AAS Historical Astronomy Division (HAD), Sept. 2021

Synergies and a supernova, The University of Chicago Library News, Feb. 2021

Low-cost approach to scanning historic glass plates yields an astronomical surprise, Universe Today, Jan. 2021

Mining historical glass slides for astronomical data, The University of Chicago Library News, Sept. 2019

Featured publications

Glusman, et al, Digitization, Measurement, and Analysis of a 1905 Barnard Atlas Photographic Plate, Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, Volume 134, Number 1039

Cerney, et al, Precise Photometric Measurements from a 1903 Photographic Plate Using a Commercial Scanner, Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, Volume 133, Number 1022

Featured presentations

Daniel Babnigg, Isaiah Escapa, and Rowen Glusman, presenters. Capturing the Stars: Early 20th Century Astronomical Photography and the Material Legacy of Yerkes Observatory. History of Science Society Annual Meeting, Nov. 2022

Isaiah Escapa, Rowen Glusman, and Rachel Kovach-Fuentes, presenters. A Comparative Analysis of Glass Plate Digitization Methods: Methods Motivated by Stellar Variability. Midstates Consortium for Math and Science 2022 Undergraduate Research Symposium in the Physical Sciences, Math, and Computer Science, Nov. 2022

Isaiah Escapa and Audrey Scott, presenters. Photometric Analysis of a 1905 Photographic Plate. Midstates Consortium for Math and Science 2021 Undergraduate Research Symposium in the Physical Sciences, Math, and Computer Science, Nov. 2021

Lauren Boegen, Rich Kron, Kristine Palmieri, and Andrea Twiss-Brooks. Women of Yerkes: The People Behind the Plates. International Glass Plates Group, Feb. 2022

Support for this project comes from the National Science Foundation (Grant AST-2101781), University of Chicago College Innovation Fund, John Crerar Foundation, Kathleen and Howard Zar Science Library Fund, Institute on the Formation of Knowledge, and Yerkes Future Foundation.