Alpine County observatory offers the universe for a fee

Driving south on Highway 88, not far after the California state line, one can see the strange structure sitting near the West Fork of the Carson River " what looks like a rectangular house with a large white dome protruding from the roof.

On certain nights, the fiberglass dome rotates. A hatch opens. A 15-foot robotic telescope peers out into the starry darkness and with a digital camera captures the wonders of the universe.

Behind the structure, closer to the river, sits a ranch house where 55-year-old Rich Williams lives with his wife Kathleen.

Williams opened the Sierra Stars Observatory in 2007 with hopes of democratizing the esoteric field of astronomy.

"Most of the big scientists in history were amateurs," he said Tuesday in the observatory control room. "The idea of a professional scientist is relatively new, introduced to us in the 20th century. There are tens of thousands of amateur astronomers in the world. They don't just dabble. It's what they do. It's their passion."

Williams, a former Microsoft technical writer, is lean and wiry. His eyes widen with excitement when discussing the technical aspects of his business, when explaining how anyone with Internet access can log onto his Web site and purchase time on the research-grade telescope.

Users can schedule imaging jobs for whatever interests them, asteroids, planets or galaxies. The imaging jobs are compiled into a master schedule, and the observatory equipment is automated to that schedule, automatically adjusting to weather conditions. Users can then download the images once available.

"There is a lot of competition among astronomers to use the big telescopes," Williams said, "and they have to apply years in advance. What we're offering is very democratic."

Williams' love for astronomy began during his childhood in the Canary Islands where his father worked on computers for NASA, during the Gemini project.

"Back then computers were like giant calculators," Williams mused. "I got a telescope. It was small, but enough to get me interested."

During his adult life, Williams saw his interest in astronomy "languish" as he explored other interests, including zoology, chemistry, hang gliding and computers.

"I guess I'm a free spirit," he said. "I have eclectic interests."

In 1984, Williams met his wife Kathleen, whose interests seemed as "eclectic" as his. She was a graduate student studying health physics and was also a licensed nuclear reactor operator. She would eventually design the Web interface for the Sierra Stars network.

In 1997, Williams left a cushy job at Microsoft in Redmond, Wash. to start a company named Torus Technologies, which specialized in robotic telescopes and control systems.

"It was risky, but I went for it," he said.

Williams helped the design the telescope used in his first observatory in Washington state. However, by 2001, the cloudy skies of the Northwest had motivated the Williams family to relocate their observatory to the high desert climate of the eastern Sierra.

When Torus Technologies changed to Optical Mechanics Inc. in 2003, Williams stopped working directly for the company and went to work on his new observatory.

He said the Alpine County location is the first in what he hopes will become a global network of robotic observatories.

"My eventual plan is to have all sky coverage all the time," he said.

Last year, the University of Iowa added its Arizona-based telescope to the Sierra Stars network, and Williams said he is currently working with an astrophysicist from South America to establish a network telescope in Argentina. He also has high hopes for Swiss, South African and Turkish observatories.

Williams said Sierra Stars has already received recognition from the science community. Professional astronomers used his program to see if a certain galactic nucleus was active before programming the Hubble Space Telescope to image it.

For a galaxy to be active, a high amount of radiation must be emitting from its center, theoretically caused by a black hole.

Sierra Stars confirmed the galaxy was active and the scientists went ahead with their Hubble research.

"It was pretty exciting to be part of the decisions made on the Hubble," Williams said.

But despite Ph.D-bearing users, Williams reiterated that the network is for all enthusiasts, students at colleges and universities, even high school students.

"It's about discovery and exploration and a chance for real science," Williams said. "To be able to do this stuff is phenomenal, and access to the system is affordable."

For more information about the Sierra Stars Observatory, visit


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