The Mason Spirit: The Magazine for Alumni and Friends of George Mason University George Mason University

Seeing Stars

Observatory tower planned at Fairfax Campus

By Jennifer Mitchell

With the start of construction on Research Building I on the Fairfax Campus this past August, George Mason University astronomy students moved one step closer to the heavens. The plans for Research Building I include a long-wished-for observatory to house a new high-powered telescope that will greatly enhance the students' experience.

More than 1,700 Mason students attend astronomy classes as part of an undergraduate degree program that began last spring, to fulfill general education requirements, or as an elective. Currently, students are only able to view the sky during one of the weekly observing sessions that Harold Geller, MAIS '92, of the Department of Physics and Astronomy, 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 will also give them an opportunity to see how a professional telescope facility is operated and maintained," says Geller. Compared with the telescope currently used during the weekly observing sessions, the new telescope will increase the number of stars students might observe by about 2,000 percent or two billion.

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, making this the only university in the area associated with such a prestigious educational resource.

As well as being invaluable to astronomy students, the new facility will be available to the public through an Evenings under the Stars program. While budget cuts have forced many area schools to abandon their planetariums and related programs, the observatory at Mason will allow science teachers to bring K–12 students to astronomy classes in the observatory taught by internationally recognized physicists and astronomers.

Few people are aware that Mason once had an observatory, which opened in October 1975. 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.

"Unfortunately, the observatory suffered vandalism that ultimately led to its demise by 1980," says Geller. Geller and other faculty 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 all thwarted because of a lack of funding. 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.

"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 Geller. "After all, as Carl Sagan used to say, 'We are all made of star stuff.'"

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 will have their names listed on a plaque inside of the observatory. For information on the observatory, go to For information about making a donation, please contact Tere Linehan, CAS's director of development, at 703-993-8719.


Photo (caption below)

Artist's rendering of Research Building
Building I