by Stacey Muncie

At the height of the space race of the 1960s, an observatory was constructed on the western edge of campus to give students the opportunity to participate in the Moonwatch program, an amateur science program initiated by the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory.



Students like Rick Ditteon (PH, '75) joined amateur astronomers across the country visually tracking the first artificial satellites in the days before radar and automation rendered them obsolete in the mid-1970s.

After Ditteon returned to campus as a faculty member in the 1980s, he was dismayed to learn the newly developed campus master plan did not include an observatory. Its location was prime property that would eventually be home to Percopo Hall's parking lot.

"Our aspirations to be the best undergraduate school in engineering, science, and math wouldn't be achievable without an observatory," Ditteon says.

At homecoming in 1992, Ditteon was introduced to Gene Glass, 1949 alumnus and amateur astronomer. Glass agreed that new, user-friendly equipment would kick-start student enthusiasm for the facility. He donated funds for a CCD camera designed for astronomy.

Ditteon says that contribution turned the tide for the observatory. Soon the Student Government Association supported the Astronomy Club in purchasing a new telescope. The National Science Foundation, citing student interest, chipped in additional funds.

"The only reason we have an observatory is because of student interest," Ditteon observes.

By this time, the observatory had amassed such a collection of equipment that it was bursting at the seams. Enter Terre Haute's Oakley Foundation, which funded a new observatory on the east side of campus in 1998.

Shortly after its opening in 2000, student astronomers began using the updated equipment at the Oakley Observatory to photographically document main belt asteroids. Students have since discovered 33 new asteroids.

"If you discover a main belt asteroid, you get to propose a name for that asteroid. Remember that alumnus Gene Glass? We named an asteroid after him to thank him for his donations," Ditteon says. Another has been named after President Emeritus Samuel Hulbert. "We still have 21 asteroids yet to name," Ditteon adds.

Most recently students have been using the observatory to explore asteroid photometry, measuring the brightness of asteroids to determine their rotation speed.

The amount of data they can study increased with the addition of the Oakley Southern Sky Observatory, an automated facility located in Australia. "We typically get on the order of 20,000 images a year down there," Ditteon says of the remote facility.

Reflecting on the collaboration of students, faculty, administration, alumni, and community which has positively influenced the astronomy program's future,

Ditteon is optimistic about the possibility of continued growth. "The observatory in Australia is physically big enough that we could put a bigger telescope there," he says. ■

Find Out More About the Observatory and Astronomy Studies at www.rose-hulman.edu