George Mason University

News at Mason

Mission Telescope: Astronomy Professor’s Efforts Lead to New Acquisition

January 19, 2012

By Lisa M. Gerry

On a beautiful, clear day in June, Mason astronomer Harold Geller, MAIS ’92, DA ’95, is on the roof of Research Hall when, to his surprise, he sees that a part for Mason’s new telescope is being delivered. One of the men carrying it to the observatory looks up and says, “What’s up, Harold?”

Everybody, it seems, knows Harold.

Wearing one of his solar system ties, Geller follows close behind them instructing and asking questions. Then, he pulls out his camera and begins snapping. He wants to capture every detail. He takes pictures of the new part, the people delivering it, the stairs that it traversed before being installed — tweens at a Twilight convention can’t hold a candle to Geller’s excitement.

A Tireless Advocate for Mason Astronomy

The new telescope is housed in Research Hall’s observatory tower on the Fairfax Campus. Photo by Alexis Glenn

Geller’s interest in astronomy began when he was growing up in Brooklyn, N.Y. “I still remember the first time I was taken to the Hayden Planetarium,” he says. “You had to be five years old [to get in].”

He became increasingly interested in the sciences, studying biomedical research in high school and then majoring in physics at Brooklyn College, where he helped run the school’s observatory. When he decided to come to Mason for graduate school, he says, “I decided to study what I liked, so I got my master’s in astronomy and my doctorate in astronomy education.”

From there, Geller has become a tireless advocate for Mason’s astronomy program.

“[The observatory] has a long history that in a sense goes back to the very first one at Mason, which was built by students in 1974,” says Geller. After the first observatory was torn down to build the Field House and the subsequent one was vandalized and destroyed, Mason went without one for almost 28 years.

“The Department of Physics and Astronomy was promised an observatory for many years,” explains Geller, who first circulated a petition for a new observatory in 1982. “First on the Science and Tech I building, then Science and Tech II, then Enterprise Hall, then Innovation Hall, then finally Research I.”

Construction on the current observatory in the building now named Research Hall began in August 2004. It officially opened in January 2007.

“Most people would quit if faced with the tremendous obstacles he’s encountered,” says astrophysicist Joseph Weingartner, a colleague and associate professor in Mason’s recently formed School of Physics, Astronomy, and Computational Sciences (SPACS). “But Harold persisted.”

New Telescope Increases Star Viewing by 2,000 Percent

In January 2010, Mason hired Optical Guidance Systems to custom-build its new 32-inch Ritchey Chrétien telescope to fit the observatory (“32-inch” refers to the diameter of its mirror).

“With our other telescopes, we’ve had views of the Andromeda galaxy, which is almost three million light years away. With this telescope, we’ll get better views of such distant objects and we’ll be able to see galaxies even farther away,” Geller says.

In fact, it’s estimated that compared with Mason’s previous ones, the new instrument will increase the number of stars that can be observed by about two billion, or 2,000 percent. With more than 5,400 students now living on campus, Geller says it was important that they have access to an instrument of this caliber, which is now the largest in the area.

“There’s a university in England that proved with a telescope of this size we can detect the presence of a planet around another star,” says Geller. “And that, I think, is pretty cool.”

Pretty cool, indeed. Each year, more than 1,500 students will have access to the new telescope through their astronomy classes. And Geller will continue to hold twice-monthly observing sessions for the public (weather permitting).

Harold Geller’s dream to have a first-rate telescope installed at Mason was realized in 2011. Photo by Evan Cantwell

“It’s important to get people interested and to educate the public in astronomy,” says Geller. Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, as well as public organizations such as the Northern Virginia Astronomy Club, are among the community groups Geller has hosted in the observatory to share the view of the night sky.

After Geller’s Odyssean journey to acquire this telescope, it was finally delivered in May 2011. On a rainy Saturday morning, a crane lifted the new instrument over Research Hall and carefully placed it in its new home.

Then, on the evening of July 9, 2011, Mason’s newest telescope had its “first light,” or its first celestial observation after installation. And wouldn’t you know it — Geller documented the moment by holding his camera up to the eyepiece and taking a photo.

“The acquisition of the telescope begins a new era in science education at Mason,” says SPACS director and professor Michael Summers. “Students will have opportunities to contribute in significant ways to astronomical research.”

“Dr. Geller was the catalyst for getting the observatory here,” continues Summers, “and he never gave up in spite of several delays. His efforts are greatly appreciated by all of us.”

Geller is one of those rare people whose passion and day job have aligned. Whether it’s giving presentations to young children, supervising research projects for high school students, teaching and mentoring at Mason or leading observing sessions for the general public, Geller consistently goes above and beyond to excite others about astronomy.

“Harold has worked tirelessly, and the vitality of the astronomy program owes him a lot,” says Weingartner.

This article appeared in a slightly different form in the fall 2011 Mason Spirit.