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GMU Observatory - A local treasure

Sunday - 5/22/2011, 4:32pm  ET

telescope512.jpg
This Week's Astrophoto: The Optical Tube Assembly (OTA) for GMU's new telescope touches down on its new mount. (Greg Redfern)

Greg Redfern WTOP Radio

I hope everyone had a chance this week to hear Hank Silverberg's excellent report on the new telescope at George Mason University's Observatory. Once it is completed the new .8-meter (32-inch) telescope will be a local treasure to not only George Mason University (GMU) students, but the surrounding community as well.

I am pretty sure that GMU's new telescope will not only be the largest on a college campus on the east coast, but perhaps the whole nation.

I have been privileged to be a witness to the creation of this astronomical treasure for some time. As a physics and astronomy adjunct professor at GMU, I can attest to how this new telescope will help students -- science and non-science majors alike. The telescope will allow students to conduct useful scientific research and participate in general astronomy labs.

In addition, the public will be able to view the universe through the 32-inch and several other smaller telescopes during open observing sessions. These sessions are held every two weeks -- weather permitting -- for GMU students and the public.

We have had good turnouts, even in cold weather, observing the Moon, planets, the International Space Station, stars, galaxies and a host of other fascinating astronomical objects.

All of this is possible due to the Observatory's Director, Dr. Harold Geller. Dr. Geller has been overseeing the telescope project since its inception and schedules the observing sessions. The schedule can be found here. The sessions should start up after summer break.

Participating in the observing sessions is a real treat as a majority of the attendees have never looked through a telescope before.

There is something magical about seeing the light of the Moon from the telescope's eyepiece entering a new observer's eye for the first time in their life. The "ohhs, ahhs" and "wows" with the occasional "cool!" are usually accompanied by a big smile.

Their perception of the Universe has been forever changed by the experience - the sky is no longer "just there." It is a place to be explored and a telescope is the gateway to that exploration.

Telescopes are time machines as even the most rudimentary is able to collect far more light than our eyes. More light is the "holy grail" of astronomy as the more you can collect the farther into space you can see.

Galileo's telescope in 1609 revealed the Universe as never before and was the proof needed to fuel a revolution of understanding theorized by astronomer Nicholaus Copernicus.

Telescopes and the astronomers who use them continue to make new discoveries about the Universe in which we live.

Large telescopes housed in an observatory are a planned combination of precisely processed glass, steel, electronic components, concrete and sheer determination to bring it altogether. Tolerances for the optical mirrors must be within millionths-of-an-inch while the mechanical components weighing thousands of pounds have to align with mere sixteenths-of-an-inch of one another -- even though they have never been fitted prior to assembly.

For GMU's 32-inch telescope, over two tons of telescope and mount must effortlessly follow the motion of the sky using large gears turned by small worm gears powered by electronics. In addition, the computer must identify, align with and track the astronomical object being observed. Oh, and don't forget that the large dome that houses the telescope must remain synchronized with the telescope so as to not cut off the view through the open shutters. It is a waltz of precision that every observatory must accomplish each clear night.

All of the components for the 32-inch are now within the dome. It was a 10-plus hour evolution on Saturday, May 14, to get the telescope's pedestal, fork mount and telescope tube safely lifted from the street into the dome. It took a team of a dozen humans and a huge crane to accomplish the task. We beat the rain by mere seconds after the telescope tube was in the dome.

For those of us who have been fortunate enough to be a part of this adventure, it is probably a once-in-a-lifetime experience. It is not every day that one is involved with or witness to the creation of not only a large telescope, but the beginning of a legacy.

GMU's Observatory will astound, inspire and fuel the imagination of countless humans throughout its lifetime. Perhaps this is the true value of such a treasure.

Got a Topic That Interests You? I literally have a whole universe of topics to select from for my column. But I'm interested in hearing from WTOP readers about what interests them. Feel free to contact me at gredfern@earthlink.net with your suggestions and comments.

I have also started a daily blog that you can follow here.