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
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
"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
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
"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