Mark Trueblood and his Wife Pat founded and operate the Winer Observatory in Arizona. Since the 1980s Mark has been a pioneer in automated/robotic telescope technology. The Rigel Telescope housed in the Winer Observatory is part of SSON. I have been to the observatory a few times and Mark and Pat were gracious hosts when Kathy and I stayed at their house in Sonoita when we last visited Arizona. Because Mark is an expert in setting up observatories for remote operation I asked him if he would write an article about the Winer Observatory for my blog.
— Rich Williams
By Mark Trueblood
Winer Observatory in Sonoita, AZ
Rich Williams asked me to write a blog article on the founding and operating of Winer Observatory. SSON shares time on the Rigel telescope, owned by the University of Iowa and located at our facility. Details of our observatory and its history can be found on our web site.
Moving to Tucson, Arizona
In the late 1990’s, the Goddard aerospace industry was evolving rapidly, so I decided it was time to move out west as Pat and I had discussed before we married. We had made a few brief trips to the southwest, so we knew what it was like. After looking at jobs at McDonald Observatory (west Texas) and the National Solar Observatory in Sunspot, NM, I finally accepted a job at the National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO; the US national observatory that operates Kitt Peak) in Tucson in 1990. We moved to Tucson in May 1990, and a few days after our arrival, it hit 117°F, an all-time record. What a welcome to our new home! My first job was with the Tucson part of the National Solar Observatory (then a part of NOAO) on the Global Oscillation Network Group (GONG) project, and after leading the development of their data archive system, I moved over to the “night side” where I helped astronomer-managers oversee instrument development (mostly infrared instruments), first for the Gemini Observatory, then for NOAO’s 4-meter telescopes in Chile and Kitt Peak.
Founding and Building the Winer Observatory
Shortly after Pat and I married and while still living in the DC area, we founded Winer Observatory in 1983. It was named after Dr. Irvin M. Winer, who had been a professor and mentor at Wesleyan University while I was a graduate student immediately after graduating from college. Irv had a very interesting perspective on life, and was a great mentor and role model who died in middle age of cancer. A friend who graduated from Wesleyan suggested that I name the observatory after Irv.
At the time, Pat was a legal secretary for a large DC law firm, so she handled the paperwork to form a corporation in Maryland and to obtain IRS status as a 501(c)(3) non-profit public charity. She has served tirelessly ever since as a member of the Winer Board of Directors and Secretary-Treasurer of the corporation, doing all the paperwork I don’t have time for, bookkeeping, and serving as a trusted advisor.
While in the DC area, we both went on several lunar occultation and asteroid occultation expeditions with David and Joan Dunham. When we moved to Tucson in 1990, we continued those observations, but eventually we both became disinterested in occultations. During the first two years of living in Tucson, we searched for real estate far enough away from Tucson to enjoy dark skies, but still within a one-hour commute of where we worked. We bought our 20+ acres in Sonoita, in part because it was east of where we worked, so we would not be staring into the Arizona sun during our commute. We hired an architect and built a home for the two of us. We designed an observatory and began construction in 1995 by having 1000 cubic yards of earth removed where we would put our workshop, garage, and control room.
At first, progress was slow as it was limited by cash on hand. One day, I received a call from Prof. Robert Mutel of the University of Iowa who said he heard I was building an observatory in southeast Arizona and would I be interested in hosting his telescope? Shortly thereafter, we received a check from Iowa and another donation, so work proceeded more rapidly. Our original plan was that we would build a 25-foot square observatory on the south end of the 25 x 50 foot workshop, with the roof rolling on rails on top of the workshop walls. When Iowa called, we extended the observatory to 25’ wide by 35’ long on the drawings we used for our building permit. When the workshop was done, we decided to make the observatory 25 x 50 feet to accommodate more telescopes. We are now pretty much full, so that was a wise decision. With the 25 x 50 foot roof rolling to the north over a building of the same size, the northernmost pads do not have a view of Polaris for polar alignment. Everything we do for the first time, it seems, we know how to do so much better if we only had a second chance!
Pat and I both did some manual construction work on the observatory – I cut and bent about a mile (no kidding!) of #5 (5/8”) rebar, among other tasks. The contractor we hired was patient with us throughout this phase, and in July 1997, a crane hoisted wall frames and trusses into place for the rolloff roof. A few weeks of completing the welding and another month or so, and siding and decking covered the roof. During this time, I used lunch hours and the machine shop at work to make parts for the roof drive. I obtained donations of a large worm gear drive, drive chain, idlers, U-joints, pillow blocks, 3-phase inverters, and other items from Boston Gear, and of 25-pound crane rail and double flanged wheels from other vendors. I then built and installed the drive system myself – if this critical item didn’t work, I wanted only myself to blame.
I had things pretty far along and was attaching the drive chain to the roof late one night from the truck from Iowa showed up with their telescope. Perfect timing! A crane placed the Iowa 20-inch alt-az telescope on its pad the next morning, we routed various cables in the cable trough, and soon the telescope was moving under its own power. In September 1997, we officially began operations. The Iowa scope was joined by Tenagra Observatory’s supernova search a year later, then by Washington University in St. Louis, which had two telescopes at our site for several months, then one was shipped to India while the other remained here until 2010. We have also temporarily hosted a telescope and homemade spectrograph from Spectrashift.com a couple times while they were becoming the first amateur-led group to detect an exoplanet by the Doppler shift method. A complete history of the telescopes that are or were installed in the observatory is on our web site under History.
Rigel Telescope Installed in the Winer Observatory
In 2002, the University of Iowa replaced their self-built 20” alt-az telescope with a Torus Technologies (now Optical Mechanics, Inc.) 14.5” fork mounted equatorial telescope. This is the telescope that SSON observers use. All telescopes are robotic (pre-programmed and controlled by computers) as opposed to remotely operated in real time by humans, due to limited Internet bandwidth in our remote location. Our site is miles away from cable TV or even DSL Internet – we pay hundreds each month for very limited bandwidth, while city dwellers enjoy 5 times our bandwidth for 1/50 the cost. Such is life in the boonies. We tried satellite connections a couple times, but they were very slow, almost equally expensive, and the time delay to go up and back to/from geostationary orbit made even simple remote login to a computer to do routine maintenance impossible, and some communications protocols just refused to work with such long delays.
We now serve four customers (University of Iowa, Ohio State University, a university in Poland, and NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center) and Pat has her 14-inch Meade mounted on a Paramount ME for public outreach and her own visual observing. Visitors are welcome with advance notice so you know we’re here. Come and check us out if you are in the area.
About Mark Trueblood
Born: February 23, 1948 Cincinnati, Ohio
High School: Finneytown HS, Cincinnati, Ohio
College: Brown University, BA and BS in Physics, cum laude 1971
Graduate School: University of Maryland, MS in Astronomy 1983
Research Interests: Near Earth Objects, Minor Planet Astrometry and Photometry, Occultations of Stars by Minor Planets, Extra-Solar Planet Discovery
Read Texereau’s book on telescope making at the age of 11, ordered a mirror making kit from Edmund Scientific, and made a 6-inch f/8 mirror at the age of 12.
Employed 1974-1990 in various aerospace companies in the Washington, DC area, first as a computer programmer, later as a project and program manager.
Program Manager at Ford Aerospace Corporation on the Hubble Space Telescope control center at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, 1995-1998.
Employed by Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA, Inc) 1990-2012, first as a programmer and systems engineer for the National Solar Observatory Global Oscillation Network Group (GONG) project to design and develop a data archive capable of cataloging and storing 5 TB of data.
In 1994, became the Project Engineer in AURA’s National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO) United States Gemini Program, overseeing the construction of instruments for the Gemini Observatory’s two 8-m telescopes by US teams. In 2010, became Project Manager for various optical and IR instruments for NOAO telescopes.
Since 1983, the Scientific Director of the Winer Observatory, founded to perform scientific research and public education in astronomy and light pollution, and just to have a whole lot of fun.
Mr. Trueblood is a member of the American Astronomical Society (Division for Planetary Sciences), International Dark-sky Association, International Amateur-Professional Photoelectric Photometry group, International Occultation Timing Association, Friends of the Monterey Institute for Research in Astronomy, and the Tucson Amateur Astronomy Association.
In 2001, the International Astronomical Union named minor planet number 15522 “Trueblood” in his honor.