Looking to infinite and beyond

Ashley Cook, staff writer

Illustration by Laura Baker.

Illustration by Laura Baker.

Among Mason’s most unique features is the campus observatory.

Future students hear about it on tours, and current students walk past it on the way to class, but few actually know the details of what happens in the observatory. From bi-weekly events to professional research, there is frequently something to be a part of.

Ever since the 2011 installation of the telescope, Mason’s School of Physics, Astronomy, and Computational Sciences has been in the spotlight. A 2012 article in The Washington Post highlighted the 4,500-pound telescope that proved to be extremely beneficial to those who have used it.

Mason is the first university on the east coast to install a telescope on its campus.

Dr. Harold Geller, who is a Term Associate Professor in SPACS, works as the observatory’s director.

“As the Director, I am in charge of many different aspects of the observatory. I give talks, I help coordinate events, and I operate the telescope along with the control room,” Geller said.

Geller played a significant role in the entire process of building the observatory as well. The initial constriction of the observatory began with Research Hall in 2004. Four years later, the observatory was built.

“I oversaw the design and development of the observatory including the 2011 installation of the telescope No one knows more about it than I do, I’ve truly been here since the beginning,” Geller said.

Many SPACS graduate students use the telescope regularly to conduct scholarly research.

Student Tiffany Lewis is in her third year of the Physics Ph.D. program and works as the Observatory Coordinator. This position is awarded to a SPACS graduate student and serves to organize and promote public events and private tours.

“This semester, I have organized over 50 events both public and private, as well as Astro 114 tours. For public events, I contact a prominent local scientist, invite them to speak at the event, and coordinate their arrival,” Lewis said.

Volunteers play a significant role in the events at the observatory as well. According to Lewis, volunteers often set up the telescope for the public viewings. Volunteering at the observatory is a way for students to get involved and build the foundation for a career in the field.

“I get to watch volunteers gain confidence by working with the equipment, sharing their knowledge with guests, and evolving into researchers capable of presenting their findings at professional conferences,” Lewis said.

The opportunity to visit the observatory is something students should not be taken for granted.

“Students can walk from their dorm room to a world class facility, talk one-on-one with prominent scientists, and see objects in the sky that they never knew existed,” Lewis said.

There are public and private events held each month at the observatory. The viewings are both dependent on the weather. This variable determines when the telescope is used because if it is cloudy, the stars are unable to be seen.

“Our biggest challenge is with weather predictions.  Since we plan events weeks in advance, we always plan at least one weather backup day per event.  That way, if the weather is bad the first day, there is already a plan in place to resolve the problem,” Lewis said.

The department works effectively to maintain the observatory and provide an organized facility. In doing so, many individuals both on and off campus benefit.