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 email@example.com.
TERRE HAUTE —
Once in a lifetime.
- Local & Bistate
ISU unveils interactive Bayh Family Legacy Wall at school
A who’s who of Indiana Democrats paid tribute to Evan Bayh and several generations of the Bayh family Friday during a dedication of a new interactive display at Indiana State University.
Can you smell me now?
A contraband cell phone has been discovered by the Vigo County Jail’s youngest and most unique officer.
GIVING BACK: Steve Weatherford buys shoes for kids day before charity run
Terre Haute’s Steve Weatherford, punter for the 2012 Super Bowl champion New York Giants, showed once again his generosity Friday by donating new athletic shoes to more than two dozen Vigo County kids.
N.Y. Giants honor Weatherford as ‘Man of the Year’
Dan Tanoos, superintendent of Vigo County schools, remembers the first time he saw Steve Weatherford as a freshman at Terre Haute North Vigo High School.
Sunday recital at The Woods
A recital featuring songs from well-known composers is at 7 p.m. Sunday in the Church of the Immaculate Conception at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods.
Police investigating rash of car window shootings
Terre Haute Police are investigating a rash of shootings that have shattered car windows throughout the city.
City hospitals get passing grades for patient safety
Two Terre Haute hospitals have been ranked for patient safety by an independent organization that assesses safety, quality and affordability of healthcare for Americans.
Three from Operation Turn and Burn sentenced in federal court
Three co-conspirators in a Wabash Valley methamphetamine trafficking ring were sentenced this week to several years in federal prison.
Illinois Senate approves medical marijuana bill
SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn must decide if he will sign a measure allowing the use of marijuana for medical purposes after the state Senate approved legislation today.
Vigo County Jail Log: May 17, 2013
The following individuals were booked into the Vigo County Jail by area law enforcement on Thursday, based on jail records.
I-70 resurfacing project will close westbound exit ramp
PUTNAM COUNTY, Ind. – The Indiana Department of Transportation announces the resurfacing project on Interstate 70 will close the westbound exit ramp at Indiana 243 beginning Wednesday May, 22 at about 6 a.m. until 9 p.m. that same day to mill and resurface the ramp.
UPDATE: Fire damages buildings in downtown Greencastle
GREENCASTLE, Ind. — Fire badly damaged several buildings today near the courthouse square in Greencastle, with flames shooting through the roofs as firefighters from several communities were called in to the central Indiana city to help.
Get outside this Memorial Day weekend
Although DNR campgrounds and cabins at state parks, state reservoirs and recreation areas are booked to capacity for Memorial Day weekend, some shelters remain available for picnics and other day-use gatherings.
Skateboarders, BMX bike riders working to improve area of city park they use
The sound of small wheels rolling across smooth concrete fills the air, accented by the clacking noise of a wooden skateboard coming to an instant stop on a metal edge before rolling on again.
Indiana State to host 2014 MVC baseball tourney
Build it… and they will come. The Missouri Valley Conference and Indiana State University made that famous line from the movie “Fields Of Dreams” reality Thursday.
Overlay recommended for 812 area code
The state agency that represents Hoosier utility customers is calling for a ten-digit solution to southern Indiana’s vanishing supply of 812 area code telephone numbers.
Elementary school saddened by student’s death
A 9-year-old Dixie Bee Elementary student died unexpectedly Wednesday evening as the result of pneumonia, said Vigo County Coroner Susan Amos on Thursday.
Vermillion CSX crossings undergoing maintenance
CSX maintenance crews are working on railroad crossings between Dana and Chrisman, Ill. this week and next, a CSX official said Thursday.
Beware of scams everywhere
Ever get a phone call in the middle of the night from a person claiming to be your grandchild, who unfortunately has been jailed in Canada and needs bail money?
INDOT to start work on Indiana 163 in Vermillion County
Maintenance crews will begin a pavement preservation project Monday on Indiana 163, between Indiana 63 and the Illinois state line west of Clinton.
Union Hospital community garden spots now available
Community gardening spots are now available at the Union Hospital Community Garden for Wabash Valley residents interested in planting and maintaining a garden but may not have the space. The garden is located west of the intersection of North Sixth Street and Seventh Avenue in Terre Haute at 1430 N. Sixth St.
Correctional officer remembered at memorial
Greene County native and Wabash Valley Correctional Facility Officer Timothy Betts was honored during a memorial ceremony at the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial in Washington, D.C.
Money donated for Dresser sculpture
100+ Women Who Care of Vigo County on Thursday awarded a $20,200 grant to Art Spaces that will help make the Paul Dresser sculpture, “A Song for Indiana,” a reality.
Powerball jackpot quickly jumps to $550 million
The Powerball jackpot jumped to $550 million on Thursday — the third largest lottery in history — as dreamers in all but the seven states where the game isn’t played snatched up tickets for the minuscule chance at a life on easy street.
School bus carrying special-needs kids rolls over
INDIANAPOLIS — A school bus carrying special-needs students rolled over today on a highway near Indianapolis, injuring a dozen people including five children, state police said.
Vigo County Jail Log: May 16, 2013
The following individuals were booked into the Vigo County Jail by area law enforcement on Wednesday and Thursday, based on jail records.
Terre Haute to host MVC baseball championship in 2014
After 32 years, Terre Haute will once again host the Missouri Valley Conference baseball championship tournament next season.
About 200 channel catfish find new home in Dobbs Park pond
About 200 channel catfish transferred into a new home at the Dobbs Park pond on Wednesday, but it’s unclear how long they’ll remain there. That depends upon the people fishing.
GED grads turn the tassels
Michelle McClendon’s first child was born when she was 15.
She tried to stay in school, but it was just too much, so she dropped out to take care of her daughter.
MARK BENNETT: Local summer music series idea remains a good one
One-of-a-kind ideas happen rarely.
As the biblical adage goes, there is nothing new under the sun. We humans succeed occasionally, inventing electricity, automobiles, telephones and the Internet. Invariably, though, someone else insists, “Hey, my grandpa thought of that years before Edison.”
- More Local & Bistate Headlines
- ISU unveils interactive Bayh Family Legacy Wall at school