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Observatories Provide Spectacular Glimpses into Astronomical Wonders

July 18, 2014

Star Field

Tracking Stars’ Trek: This star trail photograph was created over a six-hour period by Professor Richard Ditteon, PhD, using a tripod-based Cannon camera placed near the Oakley Southern Sky Observatory in Australia.

Scientific discoveries and spectacular images of astronomical wonders are being created by students and faculty members through Rose-Hulman’s two state-of-the-art observatories.

Completed in 2000, the campus-based Oakley Observatory has eight permanently mounted telescopes, each with astronomical cameras and Internet connections. Students can also remotely operate telescopes at the Oakley Southern Sky Observatory, opened in 2007 within the outback region of Australia.

These observatories provide nearly 24-hour observation time and complete coverage of astronomical events from the northern and southern hemispheres. This has allowed students to identify new asteroids, measure asteroid rotation periods, and conduct research in variable star photometry, searching for supernovae or searching for comets.

“Rose-Hulman is blessed with one of the premiere teaching observatories in the world. No other college has nearly the quality of our facilities,” says Oakley Observatory Director Richard Ditteon, professor of physics and optical engineering. “We have great facilities and undergraduate students get the rare opportunity to do small telescope research.”

Ditteon spent five weeks during the spring of 2013 taking photographs of the following spectacular astronomical wonders, among many others:

NGC 3772

Spectacular Images: Professor Richard Ditteon, PhD, captured this view of the Eta Carina Nebula in March 2013 using a 20-inch telescope from the Oakley Southern Sky Observatory, based in Australia.

  • Messier 83, a barred spiral galaxy approximately 15 million light-years away in the constellation Hydra.
  • The Antennae Galaxies(NGC 4038/NGC 4039), a pair of interacting galaxies in the constellation Corvus.
  • The Eta Carina Nebula, a large bright nebula that has within its boundaries several related open clusters of stars.
  • Nebula NGC 6188, an emission nebula located about 4,000 light years away in the constellation Ara.
  • Star Trails, utilizes long-exposure camera shutter times to photograph the apparent motion of stars in the night sky due to the rotation of the Earth.

“Scientists use photos to get important data as we examine and study objects that were first discovered in the early 1800s. They still fascinate us,” says Ditteon, a 1975 Rose-Hulman physics graduate. “We learn more every day about the universe around us.”

Ditteon returned to campus to begin his teaching career in 1984, taught his first astronomy class in 1992, and was named director of the campus’ Lynn Reeder Observatory in 1996. That facility was replaced by the Oakley Observatory, located on the eastern edge of campus, in 2000 to serve faculty, students, and community residents who have an interest in astronomy.

The observatory features a 6-inch Clark refractor, a 6-inch Takahashi refractor, and four Celestron Schmidt-Cassegrain optical systems, a 17-inch reflector from Planwave Instruments, and a 20-inch reflector from RC Optics. All of these telescopes can also be operated over the internet. This technology allows research activities in variable star photometry, searching for supernovae, or searching for comets.

“We are constantly upgrading our equipment to keep us on the cutting edge of technology,” Ditteon says.

The Oakley Southern Sky Observatory has a single 20-inch Richey-Chretien telescope in a roll-off roof building in New South Wales, Australia. The site was chosen for its clear, dark skies, and location in the southern hemisphere.

Both observatories were funded through gifts from the Oakley Foundation of Terre Haute, Indiana. Additional equipment purchases were supported by the National Science Foundation, Rose-Hulman Student Government Association, and several alumni, including longtime contributors Gene Glass, a 1949 graduate, along with Niles Noblitt, a 1973 graduate, and his wife, Nancy. All have asteroids named to recognize and honor their support of the Rose-Hulman observatories.