Ditteon's Passion Propels Booming Astronomy Program to New Heights

Tuesday, July 14, 2015
Planewave Telescope in Australia.

The new PlaneWave telescope at the Oakley Southern Sky Observatory in Australia will provide students with better quality images and a better opportunity to make new discoveries.

Professor Rick Ditteon (PH'75) has been stargazing on Rose-Hulman's campus since his days as a student in the early 1970s. At that time, the institute's observatory sat on ground that is now the parking lot of Percopo Hall, and student astronomers visually tracked the world's first artificial satellites as part of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory's Moonwatch program.

Ditteon has been instrumental in the success of the astronomy program at Rose-Hulman. His love of the science ignites a similar enthusiasm in students, and his passion exploring space through the lens of a telescope has seen the program grow from near-extinction to new observatories on campus and halfway around the globe.

Shortly after the 2000 opening of the Oakley Observatory, student astronomers began photographically documenting main belt asteroids. They have since cataloged more than 30 new discoveries. Ditteon has published 37 articles on the topic, with more than 70 student co-authors. And interest in astronomy on campus continues to grow. His Observational Astronomy class is routinely packed full.

That track record was impressive enough to convince The Oakley Foundation to fund a remote facility-the Oakley Southern Sky Observatory-in Australia in 2007. The location lies near Coonabarabran in southeastern Australia, a remote area that provides prime conditions for astronomical observation. It is also home to Siding Spring Observatory, Australia's largest optical astronomy research facility.

Over the past two years, the original telescope at Southern Sky, which is operated remotely via the internet, had begun malfunctioning.

"It was getting to the point where we were having trouble focusing," Ditteon explained.

He suspects that the 2013 wild fires that ravaged the nearby Warrumbungle National Park and burned down the observatory's caretaker's house may have contributed to the problems. Complicating matters was the fact that the device's manufacturer has since gone out of business.

Ditteon Test Images

"I was just blown away by the images we took," Ditteon said of the first light image tests performed with the new telescope.

With help from the Oakley Foundation, Ditteon was able to replace the telescope with a new one this summer. Ditteon, along with recent Rose-Hulman graduate Elizabeth Melton (MA, PH '15), and sophomore physics major Valerie Grafton, traveled to Australia in June to install the new PlaneWave telescope, and shoot some initial test images.

Now back in the U.S., the professor will collect data via the internet and guide a crew on the ground in Australia through the final calibration required to prepare the telescope for use this fall.

"The main purpose of the upgrade was to make the system more reliable so that students can use it directly," he said.

The new telescope will provide those students with better quality images and a better opportunity to make new discoveries. Based on the initial testing, Ditteon is optimistic that the upgrade will give his students a much better experience.

"[The telescope] is the same size with wider field of view and noticeably better optics and better mount. The first light images we took were fantastic," Ditteon said. "I was just blown away by the images we took."