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Shepherd University students, as well as the Shepherdstown community, have a unique opportunity waiting for them on campus. All you have to do is look up and you might notice what seems to be a dome on the roof the Robert C. Byrd Center for Legislative Studies. That dome is the new observatory.

"The observatory is a scientific facility built to study astrophysical phenomena using optical telescopes and related equipment," said Dr. Jason Best, associate professor of astrophysics and director of the observatory. "The observatory is one of the very few observatories located at a university or college in West Virginia."

Andrea Changuris, a history major chosen to help with the observatory, is thrilled to have it on campus. "As a history major, I never thought I would be working with an observatory. The chance to participate in astronomy in general and observational astronomy in particular has been a wonderful experience."

Funding for the observatory was made possible by a grant from the West Virginia Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research. The Innovation Grant, awarded to Dr. Best, was the first in Shepherd's history. Additional funding was provided by President David L. Dunlop, the Shepherd Institute for Environmental Studies, and private donations.

The observatory consists of a computerized reflecting telescope with a 14-inch diameter mirror, a CCD research camera used to acquire digitized images, a spectrograph used to analyze starlight, a pier to mount the telescope, and a 15-foot diameter dome that serves as permanent housing for the equipment. In addition, the 1998 Senior Class Memorial Telescope and the Richard Stephan Memorial Telescope are now housed in the observatory.

The observatory is used in astronomy, physics, and physical science courses for class projects and demonstrations. "The observatory enhances classroom learning by providing field activities in a real-world scientific setting," said Dr. Best. "The hands-on nature of observational work reinforces material learned in the courses and helps students to develop a fuller appreciation of the challenges and joys in scientific endeavors."

"For the students at Shepherd, the observatory offers a great opportunity to do research as well as provides hands-on experience in the field of astronomy," said Justin Ellis, a mathematics major who also was chosen to assist with the observatory. "It will give me greater insight into the workings of the universe and our small part in it."

Dr. Best said he hopes that the observatory will encourage students to continue pursuing careers in science, math, and engineering. For others, he hopes it will help spark a greater appreciation of the impact of science on all of our lives.

"Though I chose not to pursue astronomy in college and as a career, the observatory is an excellent way for me to learn more about the 'final frontier' and to fuel that curiosity," said Elijah Tice, an English major who was selected to help.

Research is another focus of the observatory. "We have been very successful in providing publication and presentation opportunities in theoretical and computational astrophysics for our students. The new instrumentation in the observatory creates never before possible on-site observational research opportunities for our students," said Dr. Best.

"The research that I and others will conduct will ultimately lead to a better understanding of our universe as well as contribute to the continual goal of understanding the conditions necessary for life on distant planets," said Travis Smith, an environmental studies major assisting at the observatory.

In addition, the benefits of the new technology are already apparent. Dr. Best said that by using some of the smaller cameras and telescopes, he and his students obtained wonderful images of the moon and of Mars during its closest approach in October 2005.

There are also plans to use it as an educational opportunity for schools in the surrounding area. "We are currently working with public school teachers to design opportunities for K-12 students using the observatory," said Dr. Best.

Anticipated to begin in the fall, Astronomy Open Houses will be held at the observatory each semester. These will be free and open to the public. "We hope to share some of our enjoyment of the universe with the campus community and with the Shepherdstown community," said Dr. Best.

To obtain additional information about the observatory, the Astronomy Open Houses, other events, or how to make contributions, contact Dr. Jason Best at or visit the Web at

Bryan Hott

Dr. Jason "Oz" Best adjusts the observatory telescope for his students (standing, l. to r.) Elijah Tice, Justin Ellis, Andrea Changuris, and Travis Smith.

The moon image above was taken by Tara Roberts and Jason Best on September 11, 2005. (Celestron C8 Telescope and Canon EOS 20D SLR Digital Camera)

"Sun at Solar Minimum" taken by Elijah Tice, Justin Ellis, and Jason Best on March 30, 2006. (Celestron C8 Telescope and Canon EOS 20D SLR Digital Camera)

"Mars Stack" taken by Tara Roberts and Jason Best on October 30, 2005. (Celestron C8 Telescope and Meade LPI Camera--48 images stacked and processed)

Shepherd University Observatory Web Site

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