Bringing Stars to the Students: Observatory Tower Planned at Fairfax Campus

Posted: October 12, 2004 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Jennifer Mitchell

With the start of construction on Research Building I on the Fairfax Campus this past August, George Mason astronomy students moved one step closer to the heavens. The plans for the new building include a long-wished-for observatory to house a new high-powered telescope that will increase the number of stars students might observe by two billion, a 2,000 percent increase compared to what can be seen with the telescope currently used during weekly observing sessions.

“There are a lot of new discoveries in astronomy today, particularly in the search for extrasolar planets and on planets in our own solar system. It is hoped that an observatory at George Mason will bring the stars closer to the students themselves,” says Harold Geller, instructor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy. “After all, as Carl Sagan used to say, ‘We are all made of star stuff.'”

More than 1,700 Mason students attend astronomy classes, whether as part of the new undergraduate degree program that began last spring, to fulfill general education requirements, or as electives. Currently, students are only able to view the sky during one of the weekly observing sessions that Geller conducts on campus during the semester.

“The new observatory not only will allow students to enjoy the nighttime sky from a better vantage point above the fourth-story roof, but it will also give them an opportunity to see how a professional telescope facility is operated and maintained,” says Geller.

Research Building I
The observatory tower is a prominent feature of the new Research Building I.

The department plans to link the telescope to the World Wide Web, with the hope that Mason will be invited to join NASA’s network of university telescopes that can be accessed by educators worldwide. That would make Mason the only university in the area associated with such a prestigious educational resource.

The new facility will also be available to the public through an Evenings under the Stars program. And while budget cuts have forced many area schools to abandon their planetariums and related programs, Mason will allow science teachers to bring K-12 students to the observatory for astronomy classes taught by internationally recognized physicists and astronomers.

Few people are aware that Mason once had an observatory, unofficially called the Herschel Observatory and located across Route 123 in a pig shed near the Mallory House. It was built by students under the supervision of the department and opened in October 1975. According to Geller, the observatory suffered vandalism that ultimately led to its demise by 1980. Geller and other faculty members from the College of Arts and Sciences and the School of Computational Sciences have been working to replace it ever since. Past attempts to build an observatory atop Science and Technology I, Science and Technology II, and Innovation Hall were thwarted because of a lack of funding.

More information on the observatory can be found at this web site.

Although construction of a building to house the observatory is finally under way, money is still needed to purchase the telescope and its auxiliary equipment. Mason faculty and staff were among the first to generously respond with donations toward buying a large telescope and ancillary equipment. Those making a gift of $1,000 or more may have their names listed on a plaque inside the observatory. For more information on making a donation, click here or call Tere Linehan, CAS’s director of development, at 703-993-8719.

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