Surrounded by Girl Scouts on the roof of George Mason University’s Research Hall, professor Harold Geller uses a laser pointer to identify stars in the night sky.
“You can see Orion’s belt there,” he said.
Then, circling other stars in the Orion constellation using the pointer, Geller said: “And there’s Rigel, Betelgeuse, which sounds a lot like Beetlejuice . . . and Bellatrix. And if you follow the belt all the way down, you can see the brightest star in the night sky, Sirius.”
Immediately, whispers break out among the dozen or so fifth-graders from Herndon-Sterling Troop 920.
“It’s Sirius? Why does it all sound like Harry Potter?” Sakina Ahmad, 10, and a student at Herndon Elementary School, whispered to a friend. Both recognized that two of the stars in the Orion constellation — Bellatrix and Sirius — share names with characters in author J.K. Rowling’s popular Harry Potter books.
Having identified a constellation of literary interest to the students, Geller then led the Scouts into George Mason’s observatory, showing them the best view on campus. It is a view that Geller made possible.
In May, Mason added a 4,500-pound, $350,000 telescope to its Fairfax campus observatory, reachable through a walkway that links the observatory tower to Research Hall.
“When I first came to George Mason in the 1980s as a graduate student, . . . I started a petition for an observatory,” Geller said. “We were promised a telescope on top” of two now-built science buildings on campus.
Despite these promises, however, administrators told those promoting the addition of a telescope that the funding was not available. More than 20 years later, Geller — who has gone from grad student to professor — finally got his telescope.
“This was a long-term effort by many people over many years, from amateur astronomers to people [living] next door who wanted to see us get a telescope. . . . The main point here is education.”
The telescope serves as a tool to not only get astronomy students excited about research and their studies but also to bring in students — on and off campus and of all ages — interested in the study of the stars.
Mason’s observatory opened in 2007. The telescope was added in May. Before the addition, Mason relied on a telescope from Virginia Tech, which it used from 1991 to 2001.
“This is a much larger telescope,” Geller said of Mason’s new tool. “Here, we get the complete 32-inch diameter. . . . You’re getting about four times the amount of light. . . . I have a picture of the Andromeda Galaxy, which is 2.5 million light-years away. . . . That’s probably the longest distance we’ve seen.”
The telescope mirrors a coming-of-age moment for Mason and its efforts to expand its role in research, staff and friends of the university.
“I think the fact that the research profile is rising may be the reason why there was a need seen” for this telescope, astrophysics professor Joseph Weingartner said.
Mason’s School of Physics, Astronomy and Computational Sciences supports about 25 undergraduates and 25 graduate students seeking degrees in astronomy. The undergraduate program was added in 2002. An additional 1,200 students enroll in astronomy classes each year.
“The students are certainly excited about it. The impact on their education, I think, is [added] enthusiasm,” Weingartner said. “It’s more of a teaching tool and a research tool.”
The Northern Virginia Astronomy Club, which hosts meetings on Mason’s Fairfax campus, aided efforts to acquire the telescope through donating time and helping fundraising, Geller said.
Although the telescope cost $350,000, more equipment, such as computers, a wheelchair lift and the roll-top dome, nearly doubled the cost. Geller said the funding for the telescope and extras came from donations, the astronomy club, students donations, student lab fees and a loan from the school’s provost.
“I think what drove the Mason telescope [acquisition] is just George Mason growing as a university,” said Paul Derby, the club’s president. “It’s really come into its own.”
The astronomy club represents some 1,000 members, many of whom work or have worked for NASA. “Assets like a research-grade telescope are something that is needed to show that they are a research institution,” Derby said.
Adding a telescope and observatory to Mason also was a longtime goal for Fairfax Station resident and amateur astronomer John Whalen. Whalen and his wife, Elaine “Chipper” Petersen, helped build Mason’s first observatory in the late 1970s for about $3,000.
“I think it’s amazing. Harold Geller deserves gobs of recognition for what he was able to do. He just kept after it,” said Whalen, a 1974 biology graduate. He was among the first students to enroll in an astronomy class at Mason.
“Telescopes around this size can be used to detect planets around other stars. I was quite surprised about that. . . . When you look at Jupiter, you can actually make out the color,” he said.
Mason offers public observation sessions twice a month through scheduled sign-ups. The Girl Scout visit Friday night was one. And while the Scouts’ visit amounted to merit badges received for astronomy, the visit marks another opportunity for Geller to share his dream with students.
At the end of each semester, Geller shares a thought with his class.
“The universe is unimaginably large and alive. You are not at the center of the universe; and, the way to know the universe is through science,” he said.
For information on scheduling a visit to Mason’s observatory, go to physics.gmu.edu/~hgeller/observing.html.