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Sierra Stars Observatory

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Test Driving Sierra Stars Observatory

David Snay

My name is Dave Snay. I’ve been observing for roughly ten years and imaging for approximately 4 years. I live in central Massachusetts, have owned 3 telescopes, two mounts and three imagers. I’ll admit up front that I am a Meade guy, initially out of necessity (I don’t have the budget for some of the big hitters out there) and partly because I believe they offer great value.

Sierra Stars Observatory (SSO) is a remote, fully automated observatory owned and operated by Rich and Kathleen Williams. The observatory is available for use by anyone that has internet access. All you have to do is sign up, buy some time and schedule some imaging runs.

There are several high-end observatories advertising rental time on their equipment and have been for some time now. I have seen some amazing images produced on those systems. I have also been skeptical about the process for several reasons. The questions that I have always had about this approach are:

  • Would the system work as advertised and actually find the right object?

  • Would the data collected be good quality?

  • Would that data be good enough to justify the expense?

  • Would it be any fun if I weren’t out under the stars?

I come from an engineering background and understand the difficulties involved in automating any complex system; and a remote observatory certainly qualifies as a complex system. Consider that you have to control the dome, the telescope, the focuser, data acquisition, data storage and remote access to all that equipment and information and you have one very long list of things that can go wrong. I’m sure the Williamses would be quick to add to this list as well.

I recently put the system through its paces to find the answers to these questions. I put my experience as a software designer/developer and hardware/software test engineer to use in an effort to perform as rigorous a test as possible. Read on to find out what I learned.

The Facilities

Rich maintains and operates the observatory, which is located in Alpine County, California. The site is approximately 5000 feet above sea level. This puts them well away from and high above any light pollution. The equipment that they make available for use is truly remarkable. There is a 0.61-meter telescope designed and built by Optical Mechanics, Inc. You’ll be using a Finger Lakes Instruments Proline camera with Shuler filters.

The facility is automated by Talon software that is truly state of the art. This software is capable of running the entire operation without operator intervention. This includes all mechanical operations as well as data acquisition and storage. It even makes sure the weather conditions are safe for the system to open up and start the night’s jobs before initiating as well as shutting down if the conditions change. Pretty slick stuff!

The exact specifications of the equipment in place at the observatory are described in detail on the SSO website if you’re inclined to dig deeper than I’ve described here.

Using the System

Using the system could not be simpler. Once you register as a user of SSO at www.sierrastars.com and purchase credits, you are able to access the system to schedule jobs and collect your data. All you need to do is log in and schedule a job. Then you are able to check the status of jobs you’ve scheduled. If they are complete, then you can download the data as many times as you like until it is removed from the system, which currently takes place after 3 weeks from date of acquisition.

The data is verified for quality before being made available for download. You’ll never risk downloading images that are out of focus, off target, or sub-standard in any way. I was amazed when I learned they went to this extreme to ensure the quality of the data. When I asked if this was standard operating procedure I was assured that it is and will continue to be the level of service delivered to all clients. I almost felt like I’d insulted Rich when I asked that question, he is that committed to excellence.

Additionally, all calibration files are generated every night and applied prior to posting for download so you don’t even have to deal with them. You can elect to have the raw files and all calibration files made available for you to process. I suspect this might be beneficial if performing scientific tasks.

Web Interface

Kathleen is responsible for the web interface software for the operation. She has done a fabulous job designing and implementing a very easy to navigate software package. There are a small number of sections, making it less likely you’ll get lost in long and twisting maze of links. There are only three groupings of links.

  • Manage my Account:

This is where you purchase credits, schedule jobs, collect your data and purchase credits.

  • Manage my Affiliates:

Affiliates are a totally cool concept that allows a primary user to purchase credits and allow others access to those credits. This is ideal for schools and other organizations such as astronomy clubs that have a central budget to make this facility available to all members.

Affiliates can also purchase their own credits and they’ll remain available only to that affiliate.

  • About SSO:

This is where you learn all about the facility and the features I’ve referenced above in much greater detail.

Most likely you’ll spend most of you’re time scheduling jobs and collecting data. Those tasks are very easy. Possibly the hardest part will be deciding what to shoot. The list of objects you can choose from is incredibly large. It includes every library I’ve ever heard of and a few I haven’t. You can also select a set of coordinates if you choose. This could be particularly useful if you want to use the observatory for scientific research such as photometry and astrometry. I think this would be a tremendously accurate system for tracking asteroids and comets as well.

In my testing, I followed every link I could find and abused as much of the interface as I could. For the most part, the system either followed my instructions perfectly or told me I was brain dead. Okay, it didn’t use those words, but it did tell me when I couldn’t do what I was trying to do. It also does a good job of telling you what you either did wrong or didn’t include for required information. This is a relatively new installation, so there were a few minor issues with the software, but Kathleen jumped on them quickly and had replacement software online amazingly quickly. At last test, I was unable to find any problems with the interface. Well done, Kathleen!

I really can’t say enough about how impressed I am with the software Kathleen has put in place. She was very responsive to any and all questions I posed during my trial period and has plans for continued improvements. Remember, I spent 20+ years as a software developer and/or quality assurance engineer. I’m not easily impressed.

Data Quality

As I mentioned earlier, the data is verified for integrity prior to posting for download. That data is amazing! I found absolutely no defects in any of the frames I generated. I thought I had, but Rich educated me about cosmic ray hits, which appear similar to hot pixels and can be treated as such. These are virtually unheard of at my murky sea level site, but at 5000 feet, they are quite common. Fortunately, they are easily dealt with.

Every star in every image is absolutely perfectly round. Nebula’s and galaxies have incredible depth, and detail is easy to pull out with minimal post processing. The equipment provides a very high-resolution image in all channels. Luminance, red, green and blue data channels are all beautifully crisp. This makes bringing out the colors of the object much easier and adding in luminance a breeze. Typically, I have to sharpen my luminance channel pretty aggressively to produce the sharpness I’m after. The clear channel data provided by SSO requires no such sharpening.

Throughout this article I have used and will use the LRGB model for describing the data and images presented. Most astro-photographers are using Clear (for Luminance), Red, Green and Blue filters so the abbreviation of LRGB is common. However, the filters in place at the SSO are not Clear, Red, Green and Blue as we’re used to. They are Johnson-Cousins Blue, Visual (green), Red, and Infrared filters which are slightly narrower band than traditional RGB filters. Normal luminance data is collected with no filter in place. Without getting into all the gory details of filters and the differences between the various types, suffice it to say that these filters are very high quality and will produce stunning images, which I’ll show shortly.


The most important aspect of using this service is planning what to image on a given night. The SSO web page has a description of some recommendations for choosing targets to help ensure that they are optimally positioned for best results. What it basically comes down to is you are best served by choosing objects that are going to cross the meridian as high in the sky as possible.

Once you’ve decided which object is best suited for imaging tonight, then you have to decide on the total exposure time and duration of each sub exposure. If you’re object requires only a small amount of time, single exposures of up to 3 minutes are perfectly achieved with the current implementation at SSO. If you need more than 3 minutes in each channel, then you need to stack them. Rich is planning on adding guiding capability to the system to allow much longer exposures, but that’s not in place at the time of this article. My experience with this setup has shown that significantly shorter total exposure time is required here than with my home equipment, as shown in my examples and the comparisons shown in Images 1 and 2 as well as Images 5 and 6.

I won’t go into all the details of best planning practices here, since Rich has already done a good job of that and is planning additional help online in the future. If you’re unsure of what you’ll need, you can use my experience as a starting point, or you could contact the folks at SSO and they’ll be able to get you started. There are also sample images in the SSO image gallery, which include exposure information for each image. Regarding choosing an appropriate target, suffice it to say that if you have a planetarium software package such as Starry Nights or Cartes du Ciel you should have no trouble identifying targets well suited for any given time of year.

Time to Play

For this article, I have produced four images using the SSO; an open cluster, a globular cluster, a nebula and a galaxy. I chose these four objects to show the versatility of the facility. Two of these images are contrasted against versions I made at home with my own equipment. Higher resolution versions of all images as well as exposure and processing details are available by clicking the associated titles.

Image 1 is an example of M103 taken from my home location using my Meade 80mm apochromatic refractor with a 6.3 focal reducer and a Meade DSI-Pro II imager. This is riding on top of an 8” SCT that is guided by a Meade DSI-Pro. It represents 2 hours of total LRGB data as follows: L = 40’, R= 20’, G=30’ and B=30’ with 2’ sub exposures. It also required a significant amount of time at the computer, processing the data to bring out the details and control things like noise and slight scale differences between the color channels.

Image 1

Image 2 is an example of M103 taken from the Sierra Stars Observatory. It represents a grand total 30’ of LRGB data as follows: L = 12’, R= 6’, G=6’ and B=6’ also with 2’ sub exposures. The first thing you’ll notice is that the image scale is quite a bit different between the two. The Sierra Stars Observatory really zooms in much closer than my setup. I hope that you’ll notice how much more round the stars are in Image 2. Remember, Image 2 is one-fourth the exposure length of Image 1.

Image 2

Image 3 is M2 as taken using the SSO equipment. This is the result of only 18’ of RGB data, each channel is 6’ worth of 2’ sub exposures. The detail in the core of the cluster is only possible because of the amazing optics and the sensitivity of the Fingerlakes camera in use. I don’t even have a clue how much time it will require me to accomplish something like this with my home equipment.

Image 3

Image 4 is M27 with the SSO equipment as well. This is the only one of the sample images where the filtration used at the SSO is apparent. The Visual (V) tends to produce a slightly more green cast to some objects. When processing the image I first tried to make it look more like what I’d produced at home or have seen on the web. After a while I contacted Rich, the man has saintly patience, and learned about the difference in the filters. At that point I fell back on my artist’s training and made it my own. Something I think we could all do more of. Anyway, here it is.

Image 4

Here is another comparison of images made using my equipment vs. the Sierra Stars Observatory equipment. Both are M33. Image 5 was made using the same setup as my M103 image and Image 6 was made using the SSO equipment. Again the scale is different, but the truly impressive aspect of this comparison is that Image 5 represents 3.25 hours of data while Image 6 again is only 30 minutes of data.

Image 5

Image 6

All exposures at SSO were unguided. The image scale provided at this accuracy with no guiding is amazing. By the time you read this article, the SSO system will include an autoguiding capability. If I can produce images of this quality without guiding, the ability to guide this equipment makes me wonder, “Who needs Hubble?”

Another point to consider is the fact that the images I make with my imagers can only be printed at about 4” x 5” before it starts to break down. Image 6 can easily be printed as large as 8” x 10” and probably much larger with no loss of detail.


I spent a little more than a month accessing the observatory, both collecting data for imaging and putting the web interface through its paces. After a month of using and evaluating the Sierra Stars Observatory’s services and producing the images shown in this article it’s time for me to decide, “Is it worth it?” I say yes for several reasons.

The location of the observatory is away from and above city lights and other light pollution. This obviously increases the quality of the data gathered. It certainly is far darker there than it is in my front yard.

Renting time on Rich and Kathleen’s equipment is like renting a Lamborghini while owning a Pinto. Anybody remember Pinto’s? I can’t imagine too many of us have the means or the determination required to build a facility that remotely approaches what Rich and Kathleen have constructed. Even if I could, I’m pretty sure I’d much rather have Rich dealing with the maintenance of such a beast. I worry about my equipment when I leave it set up overnight in my front yard. Can you imagine the stress a remote facility of this magnitude would cause me?

Going into this project, I was thinking that it would be hard for me to write a positive review. After all, I can take my equipment to the mountains of New Hampshire and Vermont or the darkness of Acadia National Park in Maine any time I want. I’ve done just that on several occasions. I also attend a 10-day star party in the western part of Massachusetts every year. Those trips are great fun, but I rarely come away with more than one or two high quality images. Weather and pilot error usually conspire to reduce the useful nights to a minimum. Weather is not an issue when using SSO. If the weather is uncooperative, the dome stays shut and your job is run on the next clear night. Therefore, I usually end up spending more in travel and lodging per image than I would renting time a Sierra Stars Observatory. I camp on these trips, so the lodging is not five stars nor expensive, by any means. Using SSO allows me to sleep in the comfort of my own bed and the company of my family.

The last concern I had going into this was the question of whether it would be fun not to be out under the stars. The anticipation of downloading the data in the morning is much like Christmas Eve. I awoke in the morning and logged on before the sun was up to see if my job was done. I forgot that I’m on the East Coast and California isn’t. Now I had to wait all morning for Rich to analyze the data and post it for me and all the other users of the system. I just about drove my poor wife and kids out of their minds until my daughters suggested, strongly, I get out of the house. I’m one of those husbands/fathers that derives great pleasure from making his family wonder if he’s lost his marbles, so that was an added bonus.

Sierra Stars Observatory is not the only facility of it’s kind. I’ve explored the others from time to time, yet I remained unconvinced that this made sense. Until now. I think the glorious equipment and setting combined with wonderful interactions with both Rich and Kathleen is what made the difference for me this time. If you live in a location with extremely dark skies, have an observatory of your own and it is filled with supremely high-end equipment, then SSO might not be for you.

However, I can think of a long list of astro-photographers that would be well served to at least try them out. If you’re thinking of trying your hand at this hobby (obsession) but aren’t sure, this would be an easy and affordable way to experiment. Maybe you’ve got some equipment, but your skies have deteriorated to the point where it’s not fun anymore. SSO has some mighty dark skies. Or perhaps you’ve got a group of people that want to work on astro-photography together. Why not pool your resources and play on the Rich’s equipment and let him worry about keeping it running? There is also the growing group of us that just don’t have the stamina to haul the gear out at night and stay out there babysitting it all night long. How about the folks that have to go to work in the morning and just don’t have the time to get out there on a Tuesday night when the moon is out of sight and the Helix Nebula is calling to you? Let’s not forget about Colleges and Astronomy Clubs. They could do scientific research. I’m sure the readers can come up with a multitude of other reasons why this approach makes sense.

I highly recommend trying out Sierra Stars Observatory. You will be very pleased with the experience and you’ll end up with some amazing images to brag about.

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