News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Local & Bistate

October 27, 2011

MARK BENNETT: Pull up a telescope and see a show at Rose-Hulman observatory

TERRE HAUTE — Once in a lifetime.

The phrase gets uttered often. Sometimes, it’s an assumption, as in traveling to Europe or getting tickets to see the Cubs play in the World Series. Occasionally, it’s definite.

We understood the latter on a clear, moonless night in February 1986. My wife and I drove as far from the city lights as possible to get a glimpse of Halley’s Comet. On a quiet country road near Riley, we leaned against our car and stared at the faint, strange streak in the sky. About a dozen other folks wound up there, too. It was cold and late, but Halley’s is only visible on Earth once every 75 years. Our next chance for a peek at that astronomical wonder would come in July 2061.

So, there we stood.

Before dispersing, a few of us jokingly agreed to return to that same spot when the comet returns. I would be 101 by then.

The desire not to miss a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity wasn’t my only motivation. Astronomy fascinates me. The sun, moon, stars and planets lie beyond man’s control. We’re observers. Visitors, at most. Moon craters, constellations, planetary rings and meteors spice up the visual mystery.

I’m a pedestrian astronomer, one of billions.

“Humans are just naturally curious about the world around them,” said Rick Ditteon, director of the Oakley Observatory at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology.

Wabash Valley astronomy fans can satisfy their curiosity Friday evening, when Ditteon and Rose students host a public viewing at the observatory, beginning at 8 o’clock, weather permitting. If skies are too cloudy, they’ll try again Saturday, same time.

It’s not a once-in-a-lifetime chance (the observatory tries to conduct a couple open star-gazing sessions a year), but it’s special. The unique facility houses eight diverse telescopes, ranging from a rare 1886 refracting model to a state-of-the-art digital telescope linked by computer to a sister telescope pointed at the heavens from rural Australia. When the climate is right, the Oakley Observatory’s roof (arched like a Quonset hut) mechanically rolls open. There, Rose students have discovered 33 previously unrecorded asteroids.

“This may be the best small-college observatory in the world,” Ditteon said.

A gem indeed. Miranda Haenftling appreciated its quality immediately, joining the Astronomy Club as a freshman. Like most Rose students, she came to the eastside school to study fields other than astronomy. But Haenftling, a mechanical engineering major, always loved peering through her dad’s telescope as a kid in Fort Wayne. Now 21, she’s a senior and president of the Astronomy Club, which has about 10 active members.

“For the size of our club, I was blown away by what we have here,” she said, glancing at the rows of telescopes.

Fellow senior and club member David Cablk said, “Growing up, I liked astronomy, but I never had access to anything like this.”

Back home at Fort Wayne, Haenftling uses a telescope she bought at a garage sale. “It’s always fun to look at the moon and the craters on it, and how the shadows fall,” she said.

Outer space caught Haenftling’s attention as a youngster. Her father joined a local astronomy club, and the members took telescopes to a gravel pit to escape the glare of artificial lights. Haenftling tagged along once, and got her first peek at the rings of Saturn. “It was amazing for a child to experience,” she said, grinning at the memory.

Ditteon’s own background adds to the observatory’s rich yet somewhat obscure legacy. After earning a physics degree from Rose, he got a master’s in geophysics and space physics at UCLA. With the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory nearby in Pasadena, Ditteon got to participate in the Viking project, which landed two probes on the surface of Mars.

He came back to his alma mater, Rose, in 1984 to teach physics. By 1992, he had an astronomy class added to his list of duties and, thus, became director of the original, 1961-era observatory. After a master plan called for the elimination of that hilltop structure overlooking Art Nehf Field so its grounds could be used for a residence hall and parking lot, Rose alumnus Lynn Reeder pushed for a new observatory and additional telescopes. Thanks to funding by the Oakley Foundation, along with donations from generous alums, the Oakley Observatory opened on April 11, 2000.

Since then, students from every major discipline offered at Rose have taken an astronomy class. Fifty-two of those students have authored or co-authored published papers on their astronomical discoveries. An astronomy minor is now offered at the college. Rose grads are currently pursuing graduate degrees in astronomy and astrophysics at Notre Dame, Purdue and the University of Colorado.

“So, it’s been a very productive program for us,” Ditteon.

And a fun one.

“It’s the only lab where you hear students yell out, ‘Oh, look at that. That’s so cool,’” Ditteon said.

His enthusiasm is obvious. The 58-year-old Anderson native oversees an observatory that traces its roots to the Terre Haute Astronomical Society, whose members operated one of the nation’s most-active station’s in the Moonwatch satellite tracking program — a predecessor to NASA in the 1950s and ’60s. That colorful history should grow in the future, with Ditteon hoping to increase public viewing opportunities at Oakley.

As long as the folks who stood on that country road with my wife and me in ’86 don’t mind, we’ll plan on eyeing Halley’s through one of the observatory’s telescopes 50 years from now.

Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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