Remote Observatories for Amateur Astronomers: Using High-Powered Telescopes from Home

bookcoverIt’s been months since I wrote my last blog post. Summer is a busy family time for me, but this year I was also busy with the final stages of writing and producing an astronomy book published by Springer. The book title is Remote Observatories for Amateur Astronomers: Using High-Powered Telescopes from Home. It is part of the Patrick Moore Practical Astronomy Series.

Although I’ve been a technical writer for most of my life this is the first book I’ve written that was produced by a major publisher. However, I didn’t do it alone. In the summer of 2013 Jerry Hubbell contacted me to talk about writing a book with him on the topic of remote astronomy. Jerry has been an SSON user for many years. In December 2012 I wrote a review of his book Scientific Astrophotography on this blog, which was also published by Springer. Jerry and the publisher discussed the idea of writing a book on remote astronomy and realized that it would require collaboration with an expert in this field to be successful. That’s why Jerry contacted me. We came up with a proposal and an outline for Springer and during this process we worked with Linda Billard who is an expert editor. We realized that two authors writing different parts of the book would require some help to make the book read well in a single voice. Linda became a full partner in the book writing process as our editor and we signed a contract with Springer.

It took a few months of brainstorming and revising for the three of us to come up with the final outline of the book. We did this all remotely. Jerry and Linda live on the East Coast of the US and I live in California. Then came the hard part of the actual writing! Mostly we worked via email attaching drafts and revisions of Word documents as Linda managed the editing process. Sometimes we needed a more direct, dynamic way to communicate, which we did setting up Skype conference calls. We decided to split the content of the book into three separate parts. Jerry wrote Part 1 of the book, which describes how to design, build and operate a remote observatory. I wrote Part 2, which discusses how to access remote observatories, plan and schedule observing sessions, and points out the many observing projects you can do using remote observatories. Part 3 of the book consists of chapters written by amateur and professional astronomers about astrometry, photometry, education and esthetic imaging astronomy projects they are doing using remote observing facilities. They are excellent case studies about the types of projects you can do using SSON or one of the other great companies providing a similar service.

Writing a book requires hard work and dedication to get to the final production stage. It was rewarding and a great pleasure to work with Jerry and Linda on this project. I’ve yet to meet either of them in person, but we’ve become good friends. I hope that people find the book useful and that it motivates them to try out remote astronomy for their own projects.

The release date for the ebook version of the book is October 28 and the softcover book will be released later in November. The book will be available to purchase through the Springer and Amazon websites.

— Rich Williams

SSON Update May 2015

Below is a message I sent out about SSON that for some reason didn’t get to a lot of people. I’m posting it as an FYI that everyone can get to from the home page of our web site as well.

Rich Williams

Dear SSON Users and Supporters:

It’s been a while since I’ve sent out a general message to everyone and I want to inform you of some exciting developments for SSON.

Tonight is the last night that the current 0.37-meter Rigel telescope will operate. Dr. Robert Mutel and the University of Iowa will replace the telescope with a 0.5-meter PlaneWave CDK-20 telescope. The replacement and commissioning will require three weeks. The Winer Observatory, where the Rigel Telescope is housed, typically closes down for the monsoon season around the middle of June (exact time depends on local climate conditions) and reopens in September. Therefore, it’s likely that the new Rigel telescope will not be available to use until September. It will have a new Apogee F47 CCD camera with a back-illuminated e2V chip with a 90+ peak quantum efficiency rating. Also, Dr. Mutel told me that they will install a fiber-feed high resolution spectrograph (Avantes ULS 3684: 3684 channels, fiber-fed, 350 nm – 750 nm wavelength resolution, 0.9 nm spectral resolution, 50 micron slit, 1% wavelength accuracy). They are working on developing a system to re-center on stars in the automated system. It’s a challenge to implement, but I’m confident they will be successful. This will be another first for SSON and we are really excited to see how our users will take advantage of the system for exciting new spectroscopy project ideas.

Kathy has been insanely busy with her job the past eight months as the lead web developer for the Nevada State Legislature. This session ends in a little over a month and Kathy and I will finish the considerable work we’ve done to publish our new web site with improvements and nice new features. It’s taken much longer to do this than we originally planned. You can expect to see it up and running before the July 4th holiday.

The book on remote astronomy that I’m co-authoring with Jerry Hubble is nearing completion and will be published by Springer later this year. It is hard work writing a book, but it will be rewarding to see it finally get published. J

We are working with a new SSON partner to come online within the next few months. We will make an announcement when we know that the system is fully integrated and ready for you to use.

Finally I’ve been asked to give a talk at a robotic/remote astronomy workshop at Concordia University in Irvine, California. The workshop is on June 9th and 10th. When Russ Genet send me more information about the specifics of the place and program I’ll tweet a message on my Twitter account, which should also appear on our web site. If you are in the area and can make it there, I’d love to meet you.

If you haven’t yet taken advantage of using the fantastic telescope system at the Warrumbungle Observatory in Coonabarabran, Australia, you should give it a try. There’s lots of cool stuff to image from Down Under.

All of us as SSON appreciate your continued use and support of all our partner’s fantastic remote observatory facilities.

Best regards,

Rich Williams


Fantastic New Images by Adam Block

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all our SSON users and supporters and my blog readers! As a Christmas gift to everyone I want to post two images of interesting objects taken by Adam Block using the Mt. Lemmon 32-inch (0.81-meter) telescope that is part of SSON. Adam took the data and processed it to create these images in the past few weeks. Anyone who wants to acquire this type of data to create their own images can use the Mt. Lemmon and other SSON telescopes to create fantastic astronomy images.

Adam is the Mt. Lemmon Sky Center observatory manager for SSON.

Thanks for sharing your great work Adam!

Rich Williams


NGC 1169


Here is the email message Adam to me about his great image of the galaxy NGC 1169:


NGC 1169 is a little-studied galaxy that we view through the outer spiral arms of our own galaxy.

At one hundred million light years away it isn’t really in the neighborhood and many of the stars in its disk must be intrinsically bright. As viewed from here (Earth) however this galaxy is quite faint and many hours of exposure time are necessary to see it well through all of the intervening (and somewhat distracting) stars of our own galaxy. This image may be the sharpest full color image of this galaxy taken to-date.

Happy Winter Solstice!

Adam Block

P.S. The top right of the frame in the large view has a cool grouping of galaxies including a striking edge-on disk galaxy.


WeBo1 Planetary Nebula



Here is the email message Adam sent to me about planetary nebula WeBo 1:


WeBo 1 is a strange planetary nebula (dying star) that was discovered in the mid-1900s. Although an interesting curiosity to astronomers no high-resolution color images have been taken of it… until now. :)

It is a tiny, faint and very cool object. The discovers (that recognized its true nature) wrote a readable astronomical journal article about it here.

(You will find small grayscale images of it as acquired using the 4 meter Mayall telescope at Kitt Peak National Observatory. )

I just love the nearly perfect oval glow amidst a sea of stars and nebulae.








Tahoe Expedition Academy Student’s Astronomy Camp at the SSO Ranch


D. C. Larabee and the Tahoe Expedition Academy students at the SSO ranch expedition

I’ve been the Chairman of Space Science for Schools for many years. Our mission is to foster and promote science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education for students of all ages through programs and projects. This past September Taylor Simmers and D. C. Larabee from the Tahoe Expedition Academy asked me if their middle school class could come to the SSO ranch for an astronomy camp and a tour of the observatory. We set the dates of October 23 and 24 for a dozen 7th and 8th grade students to set up camp in my yard and hoped for good weather. The weather turned out to be perfect with 70+ degree sunny days and dark clear nights.

Joe Tavormina is Space Science for School’s president and a great friend of mine. He’s an engineer and an entrepreneur. Joe and I were the technical experts for the event. Joe is fascinated by astronomy and cosmology and we’ve had many engaging conversations about the latest books we’ve read on these subjects. There was a partial eclipse of the sun in the afternoon of the day the students arrived and everyone got to view it through a Dobsonian telescope with a solar filter. And if that wasn’t cool enough the largest sunspot group seen in many years was near the center of the sun. It was visible with the naked eye through solar viewing glasses we had.


Partial solar eclipse taken with cell phone through a telescope with solar filter.

At night Joe and I spent a couple hours in the observatory showing students various astronomical objects pointing and slewing the SSO telescope around the sky. The students were intensely curious about everything and they asked intelligent questions that challenged Joe and me to answer as best we could. After that everyone went back to the camp area and viewed through a few telescopes set up in the yard. The Tahoe Expeditionary Academy is a great educational institution. I wish I had the chance to learn that way when I was their age. For every project the students are required to deliver a product based on what they learned. For this project they decided to write about their personal experience at the astronomy camp here at SSO. They all voted on the best four reports and I agree to publish them in this blog. Here is what four of the students wrote about their experience.

Rich Williams 


The Edge of the Universe
by Fin Swan

What is Earth’s place in the universe? Is that even an answerable question? Earth is infinitely insignificant when compared to the entirety of the universe. As Joe Tavormina pointed out, we could be living in or on the edge of a black hole, and we wouldn’t know it. Although we might not know our place in the universe, my classmates and I were given the privilege to get a glimpse of an answer by looking through the most powerful telescope in our region. It was approximately 9:00 o’clock at night. I was sitting in a world-class observatory with two of the most educated people I have ever met, having one of the most sophisticated conversations I’ve ever had. Together, we watched the monitor as it showed us pictures of stars, clusters, and galaxies so far away that we see them as they were millions of years ago. Few questions were asked, as we were all diligently taking notes. When a question was asked, the answer was often, “We don’t know yet.” I underline the “yet” because they emphasized it. They hope, and believe, that someday we will know.


Our Reality
by Kira Collins

Is the Universe at the edge of a black hole? Is it possible to conceptualize Earth’s place in the universe, or even wherever the universe is? The universe is expanding faster than the speed of light. But… where is it expanding to? Are we growing into nothing? Our middle school went to Alpine County to the Sierra Stars Observatory, where Rich Williams and Joe Tavormina raised these questions and made us think about the fact that there is so much more out there. For example, in four billion years we are going to crash into the Andromeda galaxy. Everything out there is so much bigger than us. We are as insignificant to the universe as an atom on Earth. We are even smaller. We may never know if there is anything beyond us, or if the universe is all there is and it goes on forever and ever. Maybe the universe goes on and on and on until eventually it just fades into nothingness.


Galaxies of Questions
by Dillon Jenkins

I never thought that we could be in a black hole, but it makes sense to me. When our class was visiting the Sierra Stars Observatory on October 23 & 24, 2014, Joe Tavormina, Space Science for Schools president, explained this idea to us. When I heard it, it raised a lot of questions in my mind like: If this is true, then what could the normal universe (or what’s out there) be like? Is this black hole expanding into an alternate universe? A few cool facts that Rich and Joe were telling us were that nothing with mass can go faster than the speed of light. In 4 Billion years one of our neighboring galaxies, Andromeda, will collide with our Galaxy, The Milky Way. The reason for that collision is that each galaxy has so much mass they will be attracted like magnets, and will change their structure. Rich also said that the universe is expanding faster than the speed of light. Again, my head filled with questions: But what could that be expanding into? It made me think of what our real place in the universe is. Since everything is moving, being destroyed, and things being created every second, to me, we don’t really have a place in the universe. Sierra Stars was an eye-opening trip for me. It made me realize how small we really are and that there is so much in the world that still needs to be proven or discovered.


Our Experience at the Sierra Stars Ranch
by Rain Larrabee

We learned a variety of things from our visit to Sierra Stars Ranch from Joe and Rich, the names of our experts. Joe and Rich are part of an organization known as Space Science for Kids. There is an explanation for the universe that is more plausible than religion. Our species has found a way to discover a small portion of the universe, and these experts shared their wide range of knowledge with us. What is Earth’s place in the universe? I think that our earth is so insignificant in the eyes of the universe. The universe can go on for an infinite length for all we know. If the earth is so small, imagine how insignificant and small humans are to the universe. Joe and Rich taught us a variety of things, but the most important things that they taught us were about the universe. For example, the globular star clusters were something that I had never heard of before, and is a piece of knowledge that I am glad I now know. A globular cluster is a cluster of stars that are found in and around galaxies and contain the oldest stars nearly as old as the universe. There are almost no young stars whatsoever. They taught us about Nucleosynthesis, this is how you turn one element into another. Elements heavier than helium and lithium are made this way. This is only a small amount of what I had learned from our experts, Joe and Rich. My knowledge about the universe was most definitely enhanced thanks to these two men. This experience taught me both about telescopes and the technology that we currently use to globular clusters and galaxies.


My Positive Experience Using SSON

Dave Dowhos is an avid Canadian amateur astronomer who started using SSON for his astronomy research projects in December 2013. I helped him get stared in remote astronomy back then and he hasn’t looked back since. He’s very enthusiast and curious about many astronomy subjects. He’s become one of our most regular users since he started out. Because he represents the broad spectrum of citizen scientists discovering the huge benefits of remote astronomy facilities like SSON I asked him if he would write a blog to share his experience with others. He graciously agreed and wrote this blog.

Rich Williams

My Positive Experience Using SSON

by Dave J. Dowhos

I first learned about The Sierra Stars Observatory Network (SSON) from the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO). After I researched SSON and its various telescopes I was determined to give it a try and I have never regretted it. SSON has allowed me to investigate and collect astronomical data that I never knew was available to the amateur astronomer.

In  2011 I had just finished monitoring, using a digital camera and a 10 inch Dobsonian telescope, the Supernova SN 2011 fe in M101. The Fall weather, here on the northwestern shores of Lake Superior, was starting to put restrictions on my viewing sessions.  I was not happy with my results and my limiting equipment.

I later started to investigate remote telescopes and it was suggested to me that I should consider using SSON. I soon found that SSON works seamlessly with VPhot at AAVSO as your data is easily processed.

When Supernova SN 2014J in M82 appeared  during January 2014, I was ready.  Using my SSON images and VPhot, I immediately  started to obtain  excellent results .  For me this was a big breakthrough to expand my interests in astronomy.

I must mention that the  online tutorials provided by SSON are very well presented and if you do run into problems then a quick email to Rich Williams will get you quickly back on track. VPhot also has excellent tutorials and you can process all of your work online if you are a member of AAVSO.

I found that  my data using SSON on SN 2014J is in good agreement (Figure 1 and Figure 2) with those determined by other international observatories and individual observers from around the globe. This light curve has already been published in various scientific articles and journals as scientists study these Type 1A supernovae which are used to measure  distances to distant galaxies.

Figure 1

Figure 1 – FITS image of SN 2014J in M82 using the Rigel telescope in SSON

Figure 2

Figure 2 – Blue crosses on the Light Curve show my data processed from SSON Images. I used mostly the V filter (green) but did one Blue filter and one Red filter as checks.


I also enjoy studying variable stars of which there are multitude of classes, many of which are difficult to reach with a small backyard telescope. Recently I have been studying Pre-Main Sequence stars also know as YSO’s or Young Stellar Objects. My favorite proto-planetary systems in this category of YSO’s consist of T Tauri stars such as AA Tau, BP Tau, DN Tau, RY Tau and so on. They all have their different physical characteristics making for interesting individual light curves.

While researching a star I often make diagrams of the individual star’s system that I study so I concentrate on quality and knowledge rather than just collecting tons of data on many stars. I feel that I  gain a bigger understanding of our Universe by doing this.

High Mass Binary X-Ray Stars (AR UMa) and Magnetic Cataclysmic Variables (AM Her) are also on my “to do list” of variable stars . There is no way that I could reach some of these16th magnitude stars from my back yard . Thanks to SSON I now have this ability.

Below is an digital mage of AM Her that I recently obtained using SSON’s Rigel telescope followed by the results of my analysis using VPhot and the final light curve.

Figure 3

Figure 3 – SSON image of AM HER and surrounding comparative stars.

My analysis of the image data in Figure 3 was done easily using VPhot. The results are shown in Figure 4. You SSON images can be sent directly to VPhot by simply checking the appropriate boxes in the scheduling form on the SSON website.

Figure 4

Figure 4


Figure 5

Figure 5 – Resulting light curve for AM Her…my data is in there along with many others


My next project using SSON will likely be in the area of spectroscopy as the equipment I personally own is limited to the nearby bright stars.  SSON has spectrographic equipment that can create spectra of objects well beyond the capabilities of many backyard telescopes. It should be interesting.

So if cold temperatures, light pollution or cloudy skies, poor seeing conditions curtail your astronomy interests, or if you want to see deeper into the cosmos then try SSON.  It’s easy to pick your target and submit your request using SSON. Soon after your images are taken you are notified that they are ready for you to download and analyze …. and you can do it all in the comfort of your own home at your convenience.

SSON gives you many opportunities to collect data that can be shared with the scientific community, or digital images that can be processed into beautiful pictures of nebulae, star clusters, galaxies, plus much more. One can even track the orbit within double star systems by processing SSON images on VPhot.

If you want to expand your astronomy horizons then try Sierra Stars Observatory Network . It can take you down many different and interesting paths. I highly recommend it!

About Dave J. Dowhos

Dave Dowhos

Dave lives in Thunder Bay, Ontario on the shore of Lake Superior. Besides being an avid amateur astronomer he is an experienced pilot including T-33 jets in the Reserves. He has a degree mechanical engineering and was one of the first Canadians to be awarded The  Canadian Prime Ministers Award for Teaching Excellence in Science,Technology and Mathematics. In addition Dave received a one year University Certificate in Astronomy and a two year University Certificate in Astrophysics of Galaxies  (University of Central Lancashire).


Peter Starr and the Warrumbungle Observatory in Australia Joins SSON

SSON is proud to announce our partnership with Peter Starr and the Warrumbungle Observatory in Coonabarabran, NSW, Australia. We’ve worked with Peter over many months to help him automate the Warrumbungle Observatory to get it ready to serve our SSON users.

The observatory contains a 0.51-meter (20-inch) PlaneWave telescope with a SBIG STL6303E CCD camera with BVRI photometry filters and a clear filter. The observatory is located in one for the finest observing locations near the world renowned Siding Springs Observatory site. You can read more details about the Warrumbungle Observatory on the SSON web site later this weekend when we publish the new content for Warrumbungle scheduling, which opens for SSON users on Monday July 28.

Warrumbungle Observatory is the first SSON Southern Hemisphere observatory site making the entire southern skies available for for science and aesthetic imaging projects.

I asked Peter to tell us a little about himself and his background to you in this blog.

Thanks Peter!

— Rich Williams

Peter Starr standing next to the Warrumbungle telescope

Peter Starr standing next to the Warrumbungle telescope


My name is Peter Starr, and before you ask, that is my real name. :-)

I originate from Wagga Wagga in southern NSW in Australia and became interested in the night sky from the age of 5.

Chemistry and the nature of the atom was also a strong passion and I have worked most of my life as an analytical chemist developing and validating test methods for pharmaceutical companies as well as managing and improving their quality systems.

Astronomy and chemistry of the stars was also a strong passion and an opportunity to manage Siding Spring Observatory near Coonabarabran in NSW presented itself. I completed a Masters Degree in Astronomy and setup Warrumbungle Observatory nearby allowing other astronomers to setup their observatories here for remote operation. Their activities range from supernova searches to astrophotography. Their successes have been deep space astrophotograph of the year from The Royal Observatory in Greenwich, an image making the front cover of the NASA calendar, several APODs, and many supernovae confirmations.

My main research interest is photometry of cataclysmic variable stars particularly UGSU and WZ Sge type variables in the attempt to understand the evolution of cataclysmic variables and the nature of accretion disks in superoutbursts of UGSU stars.

I upgraded my own research telescope to a 20 inch PlaneWave Telescope in 2012 which is now fully automated to share with others remotely on the Sierra Stars Observatory Network.

Warrumbungle Observatory complex in Coonabarabran, NSW, Australia

Warrumbungle Observatory complex in Coonabarabran, NSW, Australia

My Experience at the 1999 Torino Scale Meeting in Turin, Italy

by Rich Williams

Kinetic Energy Release in Megatons of TNT for Small to Huge Object NEO Impacts in the Torino Scale

Kinetic Energy Release in Megatons of TNT for Small to Huge NEO Impacts in the Torino Scale

I received a notice on the Minor Planet Mailing List (MPML) today about the 15th anniversary of the creation of the Torino Impact Hazard Scale otherwise known as the Torino Scale for short. The NASA JPL web site subtitles it as Assessing Asteroid And Comet Impact Hazard Predictions In The 21st Century. I attended the June 1999 international conference on near-Earth objects held in Turin Italy that voted to use the “Torino Scale” to describe threats for these objects. At the time I was the vice president of marketing and product development for Torus Technologies (now OMI). I was there to meet a customer and network with other potential customers who wanted to talk with me about remote search/survey projects. I was fascinated by the subject of the conference and for the chance to meet many well-known people in the field who I’d only read about. I was a very small fish in a big pond of experts. I feel privileged to have been at such a historic event with so many fascinating people from around the world.

At the time there was no agreed upon qualitative or quantitative scale to describe a genuine potential threat of a pending impact among astronomers or a good means to express this to the general public. Without such a method interpretation was ad hoc, which could lead to gross exaggeration and misinformation to the general public through the media. In a worse case it could cause unnecessary concern or even panic.

I was fascinated to watch and listen to the people at the conference during the presentations and discussions. There were strong opinions and the discussions sometimes became quite heated.

The Torino Scale uses a 0 to 10 scale rating of the actual threat of near earth objects (NEOs) with 0 indicating the likelihood of an impact as zero and 10 indicating a certain impact capable of creating a global climate catastrophe capable of destroying civilization as we know it. Unlike other quantitative scales such as the Richter scale for earthquake magnitudes or the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale, the Torino Scale is a qualitative scale giving a general assessment of a threat and the damage it might cause. This is because of the many unknowns (such as whether the object hits land or water, is a direct or glancing impact, proximity to populated areas, and so on). Also, fortunately, we have very few recent events of damage by such collisions to analyze directly.

The Torino Scale was changed slightly recently from the original one published in 2000 to better describe the attention or response to each category in the scale.

Current Torino Scale

Current Torino Scale


First Experience With SSON

Achut Reddy is a recent SSON user with a keen interest in creating the finest aesthetically appealing astronomy images he can. Knowing about the fantastic results Adam Block gets using the Mt. Lemmon 0.8-meter Schumann telescope he chose the instrument for gathering image data to create a composite image of M20. I asked him if he would be willing to write a blog about his experience and results for our SSON users. He agreed and submitted the article in this blog.

Thanks Achut!

— Rich Williams

By Achut Reddy

Like most amateur astronomers, I started out doing astronomy on my own equipment. However having had a chance to work on (and being spoiled by!) larger telescopes than I could ever hope to own myself, located in places with much better seeing than I could ever hope for where I live, I’ve come to realize that remote astronomy using telescopes maintained by others is a far better option and would give me much more impressive results. No more staying up all night in the freezing cold; I could now do astronomy from the comfort of home, in my hot tub :)

I recently signed up with a number of different remote telescope networks, including SSON. I chose as my first target an easy object – M20, the Trifid Nebula. In my opinion, the Trifid is one of the very prettiest objects in the sky, at least in the Northern Hemisphere. It’s full of rich colors and fine details in the dust lanes and gaseous structures. But not all images of M20 succeed in capturing all of that. It would take a certain amount of luck (for good weather and seeing conditions) and careful image processing to get the most out of the data. My goal was to create a beautiful picture that was comparable to some of the best M20 images out there and that I could blow up and hang on my wall.

For my instrument I chose the Schulman 32-inch Telescope at the Mount Lemmon SkyCenter in Arizona. As far as I’m aware, this is the largest telescope available on any public remote astronomy network. This is a fabulously powerful instrument, and capable of truly stunning images.

For my observing plan, I chose an RGB 3-channel model with 16 exposures each of Red @ 300 secs, Blue @ 225 secs, and Green @ 180 secs. M20 is bright enough that I skipped the Luminance channel entirely and relied on the color channels themselves to deliver the detail. I’ll admit I was a bit nervous about submitting my first job on SSON. Was my observing plan a sound one? Did I get the coordinates correct?

I also learned of a few restrictions regarding the telescope parameters for jobs submitted through SSON. Namely:

1. Exposures are unguided
2. All exposures are binned 2×2

The telescope has excellent precision tracking and #1 would not be problem, as long as exposures are kept to 300 seconds or less. But I was concerned about #2. Binning trades off resolution for increased sensitivity. (In retrospect this was probably a good trade-off for this project, but I didn’t know this beforehand. The increased sensitivity resulted in brighter, more vivid colors.)

The web interface to create observing jobs is simple and easy to use, though it is somewhat bare bones (lacking some of the polished user interfaces on the other networks). There were also a number of minor software glitches. However Rich Williams and Adam Block on the Mount Lemmon side were extremely proactive and helpful, and all issues were quickly resolved. There was also no setting to do dithering of images, but Adam graciously enabled this setting for me anyway. So I submitted my job, and crossed my fingers. With SSON, your job is run asynchronously depending on availability of the instrument and seeing conditions, so you don’t know in advance exactly when it will be run.

When I received notification that my job ran, I anxiously downloaded the results and set about to process the images. The images came pre-calibrated so I could skip the Calibration step. Then I followed the usual procedures: Global Registration, Per-channel Normalization, Data Rejection, and Summing, and finally combining the color channels together into one full-color image. Then with the helpful input of an expert graphic designer, Dominic Urbano, I made further refinements in Photoshop to reduce noise, sharpen the details, and improve the colors in the image.  I was blown away by the result; the image was stunning!

Figure 1. M20 - Trifid Nebula [Credit: Achut Reddy]

Figure 1. M20 – Trifid Nebula [Credit: Achut Reddy]

I was especially pleased with the details in the dark dust lanes, the range of colors in the emission and reflection parts of the nebula, and the overall 3D appearance of the puffy clouds. Then, another surprise. While examining the image in detail I noticed a tiny but clear straight line jutting out from one of the clouds near the bottom. Was that an artifact, or could it be… ? I checked the Hubble archive and found what I was looking for – a high resolution close-up of the region in question and sure enough, it was an actual stellar jet! This was the first time I had captured anything like this and it was the icing on the cake:

Figure 2. M20 with jet highlighted [Credit for inset Hubble image: NASA and Jeff Hester (Arizona State University)]

Figure 2. M20 with jet highlighted [Credit for inset Hubble image: NASA and Jeff Hester (Arizona State University)]

The jet itself is quite interesting:

“A stellar jet [the thin, wispy object pointing to the upper left] protrudes from the head of a dense cloud and extends three-quarters of a light-year into the nebula. The jet’s source is a very young stellar object that lies buried within the cloud. Jets such as this are the exhaust gases of star formation. Radiation from the massive star at the center of the nebula is making the gas in the jet glow, just as it causes the rest of the nebula to glow.
The jet in the Trifid is a “ticker tape,” telling the history of one particular young stellar object that is continuing to grow as its gravity draws in gas from its surroundings. But this particular ticker tape will not run for much longer. Within the next 10,000 years the glare from the central, massive star will continue to erode the nebula, overrunning the forming star, and bringing its growth to an abrupt and possibly premature end.”
– Hartmut Frommert & Christine Kronberg (SEDS)

The shorter spike pointed about 45° clockwise from the jet is a knot of denser material resisting the stellar wind “blowing” the less dense material around it.

This is certainly my best astronomical image so far. I feel that it met my goals, and it will shortly be mounted on my wall! The experience overall was very satisfying and I look forward to doing more projects with SSON.

Achut Reddy is a Software Engineer in “Silicon Valley”, California. He has several hobbies/interests including astronomy & astrophotography, paleontology, archaeology, languages, scuba diving, and traveling.


Founding the Winer Observatory

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.

Thanks Mark!

—  Rich Williams

By Mark Trueblood

Winer Observatory in Sonoita, AZ

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 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

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

Mark Trueblood

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.