For members of Douglas High School’s space mathematics club, a 50-mile field trip into South Dakota’s Badlands sounded cool. As things turned out, the experience surpassed cool, and the trip extended beyond the Badlands to the far reaches of space, thanks to Ron Dyvig’s telescope at his lonely Badlands Observatory in Quinn, S.D. (pop. 44).
“Ron pulled in a spiral galaxy for us,” recalls teacher Joel Albright. “The sight certainly hooked a number of kids. Club membership jumped from 12 to 50.”
Dyvig, 58, understands getting hooked on space. He attributes his own passion to a Boy Scout leader who pointed out Mars one night, an older brother who was part of the Army’s guided missile program, and science fiction movies of the 1950s. His interest in astronomy survived into adulthood, and Dyvig invested income from careers in teaching and business management hoping he could one day retire and devote his time to studying the heavens.
In 1998, his dream came true. Drawn by the arid Badlands air and dark night skies, Dyvig moved from Rapid City, S.D., to Quinn, where he purchased the former hospital and converted it into a home and astronomical observatory. From there he scans the skies, often from dusk to dawn, 100 nights a year.
Dyvig’s main objects of study are asteroids. He observes their orbital patterns, knowing there’s an outside chance he could find one on a collision course with our planet.
“We’re in a shooting gallery, but fortunately it’s a slow one,” Dyvig says. “If an asteroid’s discovered with an orbit that threatens us, we’ll likely have decades to figure out what to do.”
Dyvig reports his observations to the Minor Planet Center, part of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, Mass. The center credits him as discoverer of 20 celestial bodies, all tucked away in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, posing no threat.
He studies the heavens with a 3,000-pound, 10-foot-long Newtonian reflector telescope he designed himself. He also ground the glass for its 26-inch mirror.
Dyvig doesn’t squint into an eyepiece much. Rather, downstairs below the scope and its wooden dome, he brushes his cat, Mandy, from a chair and settles himself before computers and monitors. The computers control the dome’s rotation, the scope’s tracking, and a camera, which captures digital images of the night sky.
“Everything here’s paid for, and I’ve got enough to live on, although it’s a stretch sometimes,” he says.
Dyvig lives in the observatory alone, except for the cat. He supplements his investment income by driving a 167-mile mail route a couple days a week, “over country roads, some of which you probably wouldn’t call roads.”
In Quinn, Dyvig has discovered assets more valuable than a steady cash flow. For instance, members of the Black Hills Astronomical Society helped Dyvig rebuild after a fire nearly wiped him out six weeks after his arrival, and townspeople have worked to provide him with a true night sky.
“The community paid for shields to go on top of our streetlights. The light is reflected down to the ground instead of going up into the sky,” says Wesley Stverak, a town board member. “We’ve got 11 or 12 streetlights here, including one Ron can switch off when he needs to.”
Three neighbors put shields atop their private yard lights, too. Dyvig considers sparsely populated western South Dakota, “one of the last bastions of night skies. Before Thomas Edison invented electricity, everyone knew the constellations. They don’t today because probably 80 percent or 90 percent of the country doesn’t see really dark skies.”
A true night sky holds wonders. No one knows that better than Ron Dyvig, out in the Badlands.