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July 5, 2002

Star gazer

Joe Eitter
Joe Eitter spends his nights photographing distant galaxies. Photo by Bob Elbert.
by Skip Derra
Joe Eitter has spent many evenings alone, sitting in a sheet metal building hoping the night will stay clear and dark. If it does, then Eitter, manager of Iowa State's Erwin Fick Observatory, can get to work, accompanied by a few tree frogs, birds and, quite possibly, Peter, Paul and Mary.

Cranking up his CD player (he has an on-site collection of about 300 CDs, including those of the aforementioned group), Eitter will spend the evening taking up to 50 images of galaxies far removed from our own. What he has photographed with the 24-inch Mather telescope at Fick is spectacular.

Life and death
The images crisply show the life and death forms of galaxies. They also show their structural intricacies and the colorful contortions galaxies go through in their lifetimes. These images, taken by Eitter with a CCD (charge-coupled device) camera bolted to the telescope are the featured attractions of the physics and astronomy department's, "Splendor of the Iowa Skies: The 2002 Fick Observatory Calendar."

And these images only scratch the surface of what Eitter (the only manager the Fick Observatory has had) has compiled over the years. He has photographed enough stellar nebula, white dwarfs and pinwheel galaxies to fill many a photo album. By his own estimation, Eitter has taken more than 8,000 stellar and galactic images using generations of mechanical, then electronic, and now digital telescope and computer hardware.

"Joe is a first-rate observational astronomer," said Steve Kawaler, professor of astronomy. "Joe and the telescope have adapted to each other. To get the same level of efficiency from the telescope without his assistance, we would need to simplify the telescope's operation by upgrading the software and hardware, making it more automated."

From telescope to lawnmower
Eitter also is a jack-of-all-trades at the observatory. He not only has to make sure all mechanical systems are operating correctly, he keeps an eye on the telescope's computer system, helps in designing and building electronic gadgets and "packages" for the telescope, gives tours of the facility and does the groundskeeping -- mowing in the summer and shoveling in the winter. All in addition to chasing the stray tree frog out of the telescope bay prior to an observation.

"This is something I really enjoy," Eitter said. "The hours are pretty strange. But the nights go fairly fast when I'm observing."

Observatory takes shape
Eitter began his stewardship of Fick in 1969, a time when Nixon was president, mini skirts were groovy and Midnight Cowboy won the Oscar for best picture. He had just finished working at Iowa State's nuclear reactor and completed a short stint as an instructor when former Iowa State physics professor Willet Beavers' plans for an observatory began to take shape. The observatory -- about 20 miles west of campus on 240th Street, southwest of Boone -- is secluded but full of possibilities.

The observatory began with a skeleton of a telescope. "It was just a basic telescope tube, with two secondary mirrors, when we got it," Eitter said. "Everything else has pretty much been built here."

What has been added to the telescope is a radial velocity instrument, two CCD cameras and an optical spectrometer, all the necessary hardware to make professional-grade observations and images. The computer hardware and software at the observatory have grown significantly since the days of bell bottoms.

The big picture
Today, Eitter sits surrounded by a bank of electronic gadgets, monitoring where the telescope is aimed and taking images from his control room chair. This is far removed from the days of moving the telescope via knobs and mechanical levers.

"The new system is computer-controlled and corrects for all of the inaccuracies of pointing the telescope and for things like atmospheric refraction and telescope misalignment," he said.

Once he gets an image, Eitter does a fair amount of "image conditioning." By using color filters, Eitter explained, the intricate details of an image begin to emerge.

"Using the CCD detector, we can see some of the objects" apparent in a finished image, Eitter said. "But by the time you use two or three filters, you have nine times the information."

For a truly faint object, tens of thousands to millions of light-years away, Eitter estimates an image can take five to seven hours of work. Brighter images take less time.

Dark times
In addition to his evening stellar observations, Eitter probably has experienced more daytime darkness than most people can imagine. He has witnessed six total solar eclipses, traveling the world to make measurements of the Sun. He has traveled to Mexico, India, Africa and Indonesia, setting instruments in the path of the total solar eclipse and making measurements during the five minutes or less of near total darkness.

"The hours are pretty strange. But the nights go fairly fast when I'm observing."

During an eclipse in India, the goal was to measure the velocity and amount of dust surrounding the Sun with a smaller version of the radial velocity instrument.

"Our equipment was held up in customs until just a day or so before the India eclipse, so we didn't have enough time to make those measurements," Eitter said. "I had the advantage of actually being able to watch it rather than run instruments."

Today, Eitter said he is looking for several new modifications and additions to the telescope's capabilities. There is the chance that a newer, more precise radial velocity package could be built and added for faculty member Guillermo Gonzalez's research on detecting extra solar planets.

And there is a senior design project in electrical engineering "that could lead to the possibility of controlling the telescope remotely over the Internet," Eitter said. "We could operate the telescope from anywhere there is a computer." Which would effectively put an end to his quiet nights observing galaxies with tree frogs and Peter, Paul and Mary.

To see images Eitter took for the "Splendor of the Iowa Skies" 2002 calendar, go to:

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