A Day with Richard Berry
By Harry Colvin
Richard Berry and one of his telescopes
After several months of planning, Richard Berry, noted amateur astronomer and author, arrived via Amtrak and the Washington State Ferry for what would be a marathon, including a Ritchie Observatory tour, an equipment check out at Bainbridge High School, dinner, a public lecture on the ISSAT project, an astronomical imaging session, and an informal technical jam session that lasted until 4 a.m. Then, after four hours of sleep, another session in my garage to fine tune the refurbished CB245 originally built by Ed Ritchie, some ten years ago. It was a busy 24 hours.
Ritchie Observatory Tour: After dropping Richard’s bags off at our place we went for a tour of the Ritchie Observatory. The Observatory was a shell when he was here in April 1995. At that time he was hosted by Ed Ritchie. Richard seemed impressed with the facility and took numerous photos of the Ritchie telescope, asking about details of its construction and assembly. I told him that we had some problems with vibration, but it seemed much improved after removal of debris around the supporting pillar. Other discussions (Cont. on p. 8) centered around the scope’s controlling software and collimation.
Equipment Setup: We then traveled to Bainbridge Island High School where we met Grant Twitchell, a BHS student who had set up the auditorium’s audio equipment. The public presentation would consist of a pre-presentation with space theme music and deep sky images from the Hubble, followed by a remembrance and moment of silence for the crew of the Columbia, then Richard Berry’s introduction and presentation, followed by comments from Mac Gardiner. We would be working with a sound track, three Power Point presentations, and two computers. While we all know technology can fail, after several stomach churning minutes, we figured out the correct settings.
Dinner at Bainbridge Thai Cuisine: It has become somewhat of a tradition at the BPAA to host speakers at dinner before their public presentations. In attendance were Richard Berry, George McCullough, Mac Gardiner, Sonny Tremoulet, Al and Helen Saunders, Anna and Bill Edmonds, Paul Below, Catherine Koehler, and myself. Spicy food at this point was not what I needed but the food was good and everyone seemed to be having a good time.
The Public ISSAT Lecture: The pre-presentation went off as hoped, with the visuals, including an image of Mac, and space theme music entertaining the audience. A moment of silence for the Columbia crew was conducted by Paul Below accompanied by an image of the astronauts on a dark screen, a fitting tribute. I then recognized Mac Gardiner as the creative genius who thought up the idea of an amateur telescope on the International Space Station in the first place. Finally, I introduced Richard Berry. Richard’s presentation was detailed and well presented.
Richard first presented the mission of the program: “We of the Astronomical League propose to operate the ISSAT as a national resource to stimulate interest in science and technology among the citizens of our country, including children from kindergarten to high school. Run by dedicated amateur astronomers, the ISSAT will encompass ground-based telescopes and an orbiting amateur telescope aboard the International Space Station. We pledge to structure the ISSAT to provide an exciting combination of public access and education for all ages and academic levels.”
A worthy mission, to be sure. Richard explained that the program will take a two-pronged approach: setting up a telescope in space, and setting up telescopes on the ground. The initial plan is to place amateur telescopes in remote ground-based observing sites, with amateur astronomers operating the telescopes for public education. The ultimate goal is to make the telescopes a world resource open to all via the Internet to encourage and promote astronomers, space scientists and engineers.
Already established is a telescope in Sonoita, AZ (Project ALPHA). It is controlled from Dyer Observatory at Vanderbilt University. Ultimately, there will be from three to six ground-based telescopes.
All amateurs who participate will be able to enjoy the advantages of remote observing. No warm clothing will be needed. There will be no mosquitoes. Local views of the sky will be academic, because there will always be a dark sky available with excellent image quality resulting.
Richard showed several images captured from the telescope in Sonoita. The two most spectacular were the
Below: First-light photo of Project ALPHA, M51.
Flame Nebula and the Sombrero Galaxy. One could only sit there and contemplate the fact that you too could one day have the opportunity to participate in the ISSAT program and file an observing request, and have it take an equally spectacular picture for you.
Berry quoted from the League’s proposal to NASA: “The next generation of scientists, technicians and inventors will come from children now in diapers.” It struck a chord with me because I have a granddaughter now in diapers. I would like to imagine her as a high school student, with an interest in science and technology, having been stimulated by the creation of a network of remotely operated telescopes and a cadre of trained and dedicated amateur astronomers.
Berry noted the funds dedicated to date by the Astronomical League to the ISSAT. The portion of the League’s budget dedicated is impressive. The problem is that the League’s budget is miniscule to begin with. This is where the need for individual donations comes in. This need was reiterated by Mac Gardiner when he came to the podium noting that BPAA is helping to get the necessary funding started.
The Funding Event at the Ritchie Observatory: For a donation of $25 to the ISSAT project, and fortified with coffee, tea, and cookies, a number of us were led by Richard Berry, an expert in imaging processing, through the process of calibrating images with AIP4WIN. Applying dark, bias and flat frames to a raw image, he made producing a beautiful deep sky object seem like magic. Richard demonstrated the techniques of taking images through color filters and recombining them to produce colors that cannot be visualized by the human eye. The real take home lesson for this author was learning to use stack and track effectively. One can take many short exposures to improve the S/N ratio and at the same time overcome many errors in tracking. According to Berry, with the Ritchie Telescope we should never have to take more than single 60-second images. The same methods can also be used to generate tracking data for the telescope mount. Because of issues we have had with the Ritchie Telescope’s tracking it is only logical that we should apply these methods to acquire some real data about its mount. We finished up the event about midnight, locked the observatory and proceeded to my place.
The Technical Jam Session: Richard, Sonny, and I discussed a whole range of astronomical topics. Several months back I had discovered a bug in the AIP4WIN software that generates a mysterious 380 error on my computer. We worked for the better part of an hour to figure out why this was occurring but finally went on to other subjects such as adaptive optics and corrective lenses. Richard surfed the Internet looking for information and drew diagrams showing us how various groups were solving these problems. Later we got into discussions on the technical issues of mounting a telescope on the Space Station. At times it seemed as if we were engaged in a discussion with Einstein. We finally retired around 4 a.m.
The CB245 session: I just could not pass up the opportunity to have Richard Berry give me a private session with the CB245 camera that I had refurbished this past summer. I assembled the CB245 in my garage. Of course the camera would not work at first, but I managed to fix it. After breakfast Richard demonstrated how to
make the camera perform. We were taking images of a Costco garbage bag box in the dark, but they were the best images that I had ever seen.
Finally, with less than an hour before we took Richard to the ferry, I assembled my “Berry” books for him to autograph. We then took a stroll through our Japanese garden. It was a beautiful morning. The blue sky, sounds from the waterfall, shades of green from the different mosses we use as ground covers, and the white granite gravel in the Zen garden seemed to blend perfectly. Even some of the fish surfaced from the pond to see Richard. We then walked out of the garden to my observing site, adjacent to last year’s corn patch, where I have logged hundreds of deep sky objects.
I was sorry to see him leave, but his visit had been a success. Even with a low turnout we raised over $900 and with the BPAA match we will donate close to $2,000 to the Astronomical League to support the ISSAT project. It was an honor to serve as Richard’s host and a pleasure to serve in a good cause.