Education in astronomy was on the minds of the university's founders even before the first brick was laid on the campus. In his 1792 "Plan of Education" for the newly established university, Samuel McCorkle wrote of the need for "the procurement of apparatus for Experimental Philosophy and Astronomy." It would take a few decades for his suggestion to be heeded. Joseph Caldwell, the first president of UNC, was also interested in astronomy and persuaded the trustees to appropriate money for new, state-of-the-art astronomical equipment, which Caldwell traveled to Europe in 1824 to purchase. The equipment was used by faculty, including Elisha Mitchell, whose arrival in Chapel Hill in 1818 is often marked as the beginning of serious scientific education at the UNC. The university had a professor of natural philosophy and astronomy as early as the 1830s.

Astronomical research at Carolina took a significant step forward in the 1940s when alumnus John Motley Morehead decided to provide a major gift to the university. He consulted Harvard astronomer Harlow Shapley, who declared North Carolinians to be "the most astronomically ignorant people in all America." Morehead decided to build a planetarium. The Morehead Planetarium opened in 1949 and has been an important education and research facility for UNC—Chapel Hill faculty and students ever since. Recognizing the growing importance of astronomy in teaching and research at Carolina, in 1973 the Department of Physics was reorganized as the Department of Physics and Astronomy.