Our Local Guide to the Galaxy

Originally published in The Living Land column in The Hawk Eye.

Have you ever stared up at the night sky and wondered about the stars? Or have you ever looked at Saturn through a telescope? Have you ever actually seen the planet’s rings in real life and not just in a picture?

I have. And you can too.

But it won’t be me showing you such things or answering such cosmic questions. Astronomy is not my thing.

Luckily for all of us, astronomy is a big thing for a local group of volunteers. And if ever you had a cosmic question or wanted to see some part of the night sky up close and personal, they’re the folks to talk to.

I’m referring of course to the volunteers that make up the local Southeastern Iowa Astronomy Club. This group of dedicated volunteers operates the John H. Witte, Jr. Observatory Complex located at Big Hollow Recreation Area near Sperry, Iowa. This year marks the observatory’s 30th year in operation.

If you’ve ever been to the observatory, you already know what an amazing experience it is to see stars and planets up close. If you have yet to make the journey (it’s only 15 minutes from Burlington), then you should definitely mark your calendar for the first and third Friday’s of every month from April to December. These are the nights the Astronomy Club hosts public viewings starting at dusk.

The Witte Observatory Complex actually consists of three separate observatory buildings. The largest building is named the John H. Witte Observatory. It houses a 12-inch refractor telescope manufactured by Alvan Clark and Sons in 1937. To the casual observer, the scope is an impressive device. Its main body consists of a brass tube measuring roughly 15 feet in length and a foot in diameter mounted atop a tall, tapered, blueish, German equatorial mount which looks like it was stolen from the deck of a World War II battleship (it wasn’t).

To the knowledgeable observer, the device is even more impressive as it is likely the largest refractor telescope in Iowa. The telescope can accommodate various eye pieces depending on the application and can magnify distant objects up to 400 times. It is through this scope that the views of Saturn are simply spectacular. And that’s speaking from experience.

The telescope was donated to the Burlington School System by John H. Witte, Jr., a local businessman and amateur astronomer. The scope originally resided at Apollo School until 1987 when funds from Mr. Witte’s foundation built the observatory in in which it now resides. The John H. Witte, Jr. Foundation is still making grants to organizations throughout the community. Funds from the foundation have supported a number of conservation projects including major developments at Big Hollow Recreation Area and the observatory complex itself.

The second building at the observatory complex is a slightly smaller version of the Witte Observatory called the Stone-Kelly Observatory. This building houses a 16 inch Ealing Cassegrain telescope which is a much shorter, more rotund, more modern looking device. It’s white and black color scheme makes it seem a bit more space age. This building and telescope were added to the complex in 2004 after being removed from the top of the current Burlington High School.

The Stone-Kelly building was named after two Burlington space pioneers. The first is Dr. Edward Stone, Project Scientist for the Voyager Missions and former Director of the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The second is astronaut and space shuttle pilot, Jim Kelly.

The third and final building is the Prugh-Carver building. This building trades the traditional dome top for a flat, squared off roof that actually rolls back off the building walls revealing Mr. Witte’s personal 1937 eight-inch refractor telescope.

Viewing the cosmos at the Witte Observatory is much more than just a magnified look into the heavens. You’ll leave there with astounding bits of information floating around what remains of your blown mind. The Astronomy Club volunteers are truly walking stargazing apps. In case seeing a particular star through a 15-foot-long telescope isn’t enough, you’ll also likely find out the name of the star, how far away it is, the type of star it is, and other information you didn’t know even existed about individual stars.

Did you realize the starlight that reaches our eyes was actually cast many, many thousands of years ago? Hence the term “lightyear” (and no, not the animated movie character).
Whew, it hurts my brain just thinking about it.

There just aren’t many places like the Witte Observatory and there certainly aren’t many volunteers like those at the Southeastern Iowa Astronomy Club. It truly is a local gem of a place we’re lucky to have here in our little community.