thumbnail1975 courtesy John Whalan

A Brief History of GMU's Astronomy Observatories

thumbnail2006 courtesy Leo A. Daly Associates
Observing Sessions at GMU
The Observatory at Research I

Few people are aware of the fact that GMU had two astronomy observatories years ago. The first officially opened 6 October 1975. In fact, work on the first observatory began in 1972. The observatory was called the Herschel Observatory by the Department of Physics, but that name was not official. It was built by students (John Whalan, Chipper Peterson, and Bob Veenstra) under the supervision of Bill Lankford.
thumbnail thumbnail thumbnail1975 Brochure courtesy John Whalan

Menas Kafatos took over the supervision of the Herschel Observatory when he came to GMU in the fall of 1975. The location of the Herschel Observatory was the pig shed adjacent to the Mallory House, across Route 123 from the main campus. The pig shed was torn down to make way for the Field House, and a second observatory was built in the athletic fields. Unfortunately, this second observatory suffered vandalism, that ultimately lead to its demise by 1980. It was torn down within two years.

There have been plans for a new observatory for GMU ever since. Original plans were made to have an observatory on the top of Science and Technology I, Science and Technology II, and Academic IV (now known as Innovation Hall). In 1982 Geller circulated a petition that was received by then President Johnson, regarding the building of an observatory for GMU. Over the years, faculty involved in plans to obtain a new observatory have included Lankford, Kafatos, Lieb, Ellsworth, Ehrlich, Becker, Wallin, Geller, and Dworzecka. Administrators that have been advocates for an observatory include Provost Stearns, Vice-Provost Hill, Dean Struppa and Dean Kafatos. Each time financial concerns stopped the building of an observatory.

Now, almost 30 years later, GMU has begun building its new Research I facility with an observatory tower that has an observatory on top of the facility. Like its 1975 counterpart, the new observatory is expected to see a lot of use for public outreach events. As Kafatos said in 1978 in an interview with Jodi Musolino of GMU's Broadside, the observatory will be "taken advantage of by many members of the community, such as, boy scout and other youth groups." GMU's own students should find the observatory an aide in the learning of astronomy.
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Astronomy is now a major at GMU. This is only our second year with an undergraduate major in astronomy. However, not only astronomy majors will benefit from the observatory. About 1200 students each semester take some kind of astronomy. Most do so to meet their general education requirements at GMU. Some do so as an elective. These students currently can observe the night sky on campus only during one of the observing sessions that I run on campus during the semester. This is very limiting, and there are lots of obstructions.

The new observatory will not only allow students to enjoy the night time sky from a better vantage point above the fourth story roof, but it will also give them an opportunity to see how a professional telescope facility is operated and maintained. The Department of Physics and Astronomy hopes to make telescope operation available to all students via the World Wide Web, for their astronomy laboratory projects. Right now, the department is working to get its radio telescope, which sits upon the roof of Science and Technology I, to operate in a similar manner.

Now, students rely on computer simulations for their laboratory data. When the observatory is built and outfitted, students here will enjoy the thrill and excitement of operating a real telescope and analyzing the data they optain from it. 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. While astronomers at GMU are involved in related research projects from Mars to the most distant galaxies, it is hoped that a GMU observatory will bring the knowledge of the stars closer to the students themselves. After all, as Carl Sagan used to say, "we are all made of star stuff." That is, all of the chemicals that we humans are made of, orginally came from the interior of ancient stars, that died before our own Sun was born.

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thumbnail1978 Pictures from Broadside