Steven Majewski / Astronomy

My proposed “Dream Idea” to the Mead Endowment is inspired by the enthusiasm of many students I’ve been fortunate to have in observational astronomy classes at UVa. Part of the fascination that the general public holds for astronomy is a direct result of a steady flow of stunning imagery of the universe that is continually generated by ground- and space-based telescopes. Students are no less captivated by the drama of these windows into new worlds, but even more so when THEY are the ones who have “opened the window”. I’ve had more than several students who have stayed “after hours” at the observatory for the chance to use the telescope to do their own survey of the heavens. I even had one determined student (not an astronomer) who paid her own way to Chile just for the experience of taking part in astronomical discovery. My Dream Idea is to facilitate and guide similarly enthusiastic students along the scientific journey to exploring a heavenly world of their own choosing.

To this end, I propose to hold an “Opening Windows to Distant Worlds” competition to UVa students. Students would propose celestial objects that they would like to have the opportunity to explore if they had access to a state of the art telescope and explain why. Proposals would be in two categories judged separately: Astronomy majors and non-majors. Therefore, the “explain why” part of the proposal can be scientific or whimsical, as the student desires. Winners of the best proposals would accompany me to undertake observations of the students’ chosen worlds at a world-class telescope in either Arizona or in Chile. Mead funds could support about two students to Arizona or little more than one student to Chile; with some matching funds from other sources I may be able to increase the number of students able to participate.

A similar type of “design your own experiment” program, but at a much more modest level, has been the highlight of my observational astronomy class for the past five years. Near the end of the semester I take my class on a field trip to UVa’s Fan Mtn. observatory in southern Albemarle County where students create digital color images of distant galaxies THEY have selected for detailed study. Many of these images are impressive and the justifiably proud explorers hang the portraits of their adopted worlds in their dorm rooms, put the pictures on their computer desktops, send them to friends and family, etc. Many of these images have even graced our department’s home web page. The camaraderie of the class briefly sojourning in the Albemarle countryside to take the data needed to create these portraits is also something we all look forward to. But there is nothing quite likes the thrill of REALLY journeying to one remote world — a distant mountain top with an extraordinarily dark and star-studded sky — to use a gigantic telescope to peer into another, much more remote world out in the heavens. My goal is to be able to share this unique experience with other students both scientist and poet.