Zooming into Hands-On Astronomy; University Telescopes Focus Stars for All Levels of Observers

Article excerpt

Byline: Shelley Widhalm, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

With a push of a few buttons, astronomy professor Harold Geller opens the shutter on George Mason University's newly built observatory to reveal the daytime sky.

Mr. Geller, observatory director, stands atop a 6-foot concrete structure waiting out the two minutes for the shutter to open. He hits a command sequence on a remote-control device to drop open the trapdoor and lengthen the aperture.

Where Mr. Geller stands, a 34-inch-diameter telescope will be installed after the components are custom-built and the telescope is assembled; that is estimated to be finished sometime in 2008. The telescope is refractive, meaning it uses mirrors to reflect light, electromagnetic radiation from the sky to create an image, and lenses to bend, or refract, the light to focus the image for observation.

"You just get a reaction of oohs and aahs when the dome opens," says Mr. Geller, associate chairman of the physics and astronomy department for the university's main campus, in Fairfax.

The dome, which will protect the telescope from the elements, can be rotated 360 degrees to locate the 75-inch-wide curved opening anywhere on the axis, Mr. Geller says. The dome and shutter, both made of galvanized steel, are controlled by motors and can be closed manually in case of power failure, he says.

The observatory is a teaching tool for college astronomy and visiting science classes from kindergarten through 12th grade and also a public resource during open observing sessions every other Thursday night.

The University of Maryland in College Park and Georgetown University also have observatories for classroom and public use; George Washington University and Howard University have telescopes for classroom use but do not have observatories to house them.

"It just makes a dramatic difference for students to get out of the lecture hall and see the stars through a telescope," says Stephen Maran, spokesman for the American Astronomical Society, a national organization of professional astronomers based in Northwest. He holds a doctorate in astronomy and is a retired astronomer for NASA. He is author of "Astronomy for Dummies."

"It's the difference of having a professor telling you something from a book and actually seeing it for yourself," Mr. Maran says.

The George Mason University observatory is housed in the fifth story of a tower connected to the new Research I building, which, of course, is dedicated to research. The campus's first observatory was built in 1975, then torn down for construction of the Field House. Its replacement was vandalized and put out of operation in 1980, creating the need for a new facility.

Construction on Research I began in 2004. The tower is estimated to cost $1 million, the observatory another $500,000 and the telescope $300,000, Mr. Geller says.

"It's always a good sign when a college adds an observatory," Mr. Maran says. "There's a trend now to shut them down because of the expense of operating them. This is good news."

The observatory opened in January, to Mr. Geller's relief. The new facility means that he will not have to drag out and set up any of the smaller 6-inch, 8-inch, 12-inch, and 16-inch telescopes for observation sessions. Eventually, the 12-inch and 16-inch telescopes will be installed on three piers on the veranda of the observatory.

"We want to provide the same tools researchers use in the field and give [students] a flavor of how to control the best telescopes," Mr. …