New Observatory Telescope provides 4,500 pounds of education
It’s only a short elevator ride to the roof of Research Hall and the Astronomy Observatory, but Harold Geller fills the time with facts about the building’s construction, history of astronomy at Mason, and the excitement felt in the local community about the new thirty-two-inch diameter Ritchey-Chrétien telescope in the College of Science. The new scope is possibly the largest on-campus telescope of its kind at any university on the East Coast.
Geller, observatory director and associate professor in the School of Physics,Astronomy, and Computational Sciences, explains that this new telescope continues a tradition that started in 1975. Students back then firsthand-built a six-inch refractor telescope, then a twelve-inch reflector telescope. The university’s commitment to physics, astronomy, and computational sciences has grown since the 1970s. About twenty-five graduate students are currently enrolled in the astronomy program, and another 1,500 students take astronomy classes each year. “This is a professional-grade telescope,” says Geller. “It allows us to see as far into space as possible.
”The scope is mounted in the dome of the observatory and is controlled by three computers. One system displays a graphical user interface that takes the guesswork out of searching for objects in the sky. Geller explains that the 4,500-pound telescope can easily be positioned by typing in commands that have the skymapped with precise coordinates. The dome roof opens and closes, and the telescope rotates into position. He adds that the enormous telescope was dropped into place from the open dome roof and assembled inside the room.
And while the new scope is impressive,the observatory itself has features designed specifically for small groups.The room has been fitted with a motorized lift that allows for handicap access up to the scope, a screen and sound system for presentations, and red safety lighting that does not interfere with viewing the night sky.In addition to the new scope, the observatory houses a twelve-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain (Mancini) telescope, a six-inch solar telescope, a sixteen-inch Dobsonian (Strickland) telescope, and also has one telescope from the original observatory on display.“The scopes are primarily used for education,” explains Geller. Students get a first-eye view of stars and planets and are introduced to different types of research. Although the software automates the positioning of the scope,students still get valuable experience working with a scope this large. that experience will serve them well if they continue their research at other facilities, especially if they work on the West Coast at larger observatories.
Research and education is what the Astronomy Observatory are all about. In addition to regular evening viewings for the public,the college also has a weather station and is participating in the International Dark-Sky Association project to measure light pollution across the globe. According to the International Dark-Sky Association, “human-produced light pollution not only mars our view of the stars; poor lighting threatens astronomy, disrupts ecosystems, affects human circadian rhythms, and wastes energy to the tune of $2.2 billion per year in the United States alone.” Mason has received a grant to serve as a single measurement point. Research facilities around the world are measuring nighttime light levels. Each single point,when measured together,will help create a worldview of current light pollution levels. Geller is also working on a grant that will measure daytime light levels. Preserving our view of the night sky is essential for astronomical research and for inspiring the next generation of scientists.