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Out of this World: Student Astronomers Survey Space at Oakley Observatory

January 22, 2016

Oakley Observatory Spaceimage

Student astronomers use the high-powered telescopes at the Oakley Observatory to photograph asteroids and distant stars in dazzling detail.

It’s not unusual for youngsters to be fascinated with space. Many of us still remember how we memorized the order of planets in our solar system using the mnemonic phrase “My very educated mother just served us nine pizzas,” in the days before Pluto was demoted to dwarf planet status.

Most people may never have the opportunity to gaze at the final frontier through the lens of a high-powered telescope. Here at Rose-Hulman, however, students can rekindle that wonder at the Oakley Observatory.

“I’ve always been really interested in space,” says mechanical engineering major Danielle Michalik.

The Oak Forest, Illinois, native remembers being captivated by nerdy television shows about the planets and stars that she watched with her dad as a kid. So during her college search, astronomy classes at Rose-Hulman piqued her interest.

The first time she stargazed on campus was when she took Observational Astronomy, a course which combines classroom lessons and nighttime labs at the observatory.

“In Observational Astronomy, you get your hands on the telescopes right away,” she recalls.

Now a junior, Michalik has moved on to research in asteroid photometry, measuring the brightness of asteroids to determine their rotation speed. In fact, student astronomers have been photographically documenting main belt asteroids since 2000. They have catalogued more than 30 new discoveries.

“If we get enough data [from the current research] we’re going to try to get it published in Minor Planets Journal,” she says.

More than 70 students have co-authored articles with Observatory Director Richard Ditteon.

But the Oakley Observatory isn’t only used for labs and research. It’s also home base for the Rose-Hulman Astronomical Society. Club president Joe Militello says he had no experience with astronomy when he came to Rose-Hulman, but he had always wanted to try it. Here, he had the opportunity to do so.

“I fell in love with it so I wanted to keep it up,” he recalls. Militello, a computer engineering major from Dayton, Ohio, says that being part of the club is a way for students to learn more about astronomy in a relaxed atmosphere, where they can pursue their own areas of interest.

“This year Dr. Ditteon is training us to make high quality color pictures of galaxies and nebulas,” he explains. To do this, the young astronomers choose a heavenly object and program the telescope to take a series of photos over several hours. They then combine the pictures to filter out the clutter.

“We put all the different images on top of one another to enhance the colors,” he adds.

The results are stunning.

“Most colleges have one telescope that’s high-powered, and you have to register for a time to use it. We have several, and when we go to the observatory it’s one or two students per telescope,” Militello says. “That’s the best part and what makes our observatory unique compared to other college campuses.”