Alpine couple looks to the skies | RecordCourier.com
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Alpine couple looks to the skies

by Lisa Gavon
R-C Alpine Bureau
An eagle flies in Alpine County.
Rich Williams/Special to The R-C |

Looking up into the inky black sky, the stars glitter, and we can see the outline of the Milky Way. We are not bothered by a high level of pollution, and the majority of our days are crisp and clear. Those are the reasons Rich and Kathy Williams moved here. Rich built his own astronomical observatory, becoming founder and CEO of Sierra Stars Observatory Network in 1997. It is a global network of remote observatories available to everyone. You can see the white, round domed building off to your left from Highway 88 as you cross the border into Alpine County.

Rich and Kathy live an adventurous life. Kathy graduated with a masters degree in health physics. Rich worked as a professional hang glider pilot, managing shops and teaching, before beginning his career in technical writing. He met Kathy when they both worked in an electronics manufacturing firm and learned she was taking hang gliding lessons at the University of Lowell in Massachusetts. Kathy went on to earn a Bronze Medal in 1995 for the US Woman’s World Meet, a team event just for hang glider pilots.

After they married, Rich and Kathy moved to the state of Washington where their two children, Teddy and Tessa were born. It was here that they discovered their mutual love of bird-watching. You can see the long term results of this interest at their Sierra Stars Bird Blog and Gallery. Kathy is currently Manager of the State Legislature Web Development Department. Between the two of them they have the perfect backgrounds for observing and capturing some remarkable avian images.

Rich traveled a lot when he was growing up, even living in the Canary Islands where his father worked on early computer systems for NASA, creating telemetry (tracking) for satellites. This gave him the foundation for being comfortable anywhere in the world. One of his upcoming projects is setting up two one meter telescope installations in India using laser technology to access distance measurements of man-made objects and space debris.

Rich was working for Microsoft as a programmer and technical writer at the inception of the internet and became fascinated by robotic technology and CCD (charge-coupled device) imagery. He wanted to buy a telescope capable of automatically taking images throughout the night while he slept. There was nothing like this available commercially. After extensive research he found James Mulherin in Iowa City had designed and manufactured a custom automated telescope for another customer. Rich contracted James to build a 16-inch automated telescope and constructed an observatory to house it in Buckley, Washington.

Two years later Rich quit Microsoft and co-founded Torus Technologies, which later became Optical Mechanics. James Mulherin and his two brothers were the other founding members. Rich became a shareholder and vice president of marketing and product development. In this capacity, he has given talks in a wide range of countries, including Honduras, Jordan, France, and Taiwan. He was in Italy during the conference that established the Torino Scale, a method of categorizing the impact hazard of objects such as asteroids and comets.

The robotic telescopes, like the 24-inch one he has in his observatory now, are automated and can take hundreds of images throughout the night. The Sierra Stars Observatory Network has the location in Alpine, plus two other installations in Arizona and Australia. Every clear night, Rich takes schedule requests from the SSON website and runs a computer program that operates the observatory system, taking customer’s images while he sleeps. Astronomers, students, and others with a passion for astronomy can do interesting, meaningful scientific research and create beautiful images of astronomical objects. His clients have discovered hundreds of asteroids, a comet, and taken thousands of brightness measurements of variable stars and much more. You don’t have to have a degree to learn about the stars, or to make a major contribution in the field.

Rich is chairman of Space Science for Schools, a public outreach based in Incline Village. He and Kathy have had students come out and camp overnight on their Alpine property, using his robotic telescope to study the stars and planets.

He is the author of “Remote Observatories for Amateur Astronomers.” It is available on Amazon as an ebook or hard copy, and outlines how to build your own remote observatory. A big advantage to this system is that you do not have to be physically present to carry out observations and documentation. It greatly increases the chances of remarkable discoveries.

Rich and Kathy love being out in the wilderness and have dedicated themselves to keenly observing both celestial objects in the night sky, and local and exotic birds. Contact them at http://ssonblog.sierrastars.com or http://birds.sierrastars.com.