It's a night that is cloudy and wet here in the Salt Lake City area. Scanning the astronomy discussion site, cloudynights.com, there is an exciting announcement: a bright supernova has erupted in a galaxy that is well-placed in the night sky. You’re itching to photograph this cosmic catastrophe — but the weather here is incompatible.
Checking the Utah charts section of the cleardarksky.com website, it indicates that for this night alone, southern Utah has a nice clear break in the weather, but the north remains clouded into the forecastable future. You can’t possibly pack up, drive to a site in the south, erect and orient the telescope, hook on a camera and begin taking pictures before full daylight tomorrow. What can you do?
If you’re like Mark Bailey, you can settle behind a computer, link to your remote-controlled observatory in southern Utah and immediately begin an astrophotography run. Bang! There’s the supernova, a bright dot in the galaxy where none was before — blazing brighter than the entire rest of the galaxy, the place where a star exploded and destroyed any nearby planets, the place where a newly formed black hole lurks.
Mark Bailey's "first light" photograph shows the "Leo Trio" of galaxies. Located in the constellation Leo, each is about 35 million light-years away and 100,000 light-years across. | Mark E. Bailey
Bailey, who is retired after a career in investment management, spends part of his time based at the family’s home in the Millcreek-Holladay area and about a third at their home in Torrey, Wayne County. The town, gateway to Capitol Reef National Park, boasts skies that are among the darkest in the conterminous United States. There, far from the blazing lights of the Wasatch Front, Bailey maintains a fully automated astronomical observatory at his home, which is controlled through an internet connection.
He became interested in astronomy in 1986, when his father, David, an avid observer, took him into the Utah desert to view Halley’s Comet through an 8-inch-diameter Celestron telescope. It was fun, he recalled, and he could see the attraction. But he was raising a young family and did not pursue the hobby.
David Bailey, though, dove deep into astronomy, purchasing better equipment and building an observatory in his back yard, which is near the mouth of Little Cottonwood Canyon — it was a beauty, with a revolving dome, shutters, a fine telescope and a great astronomy camera, which he controlled from the basement.
Last August, his father called Mark Bailey and said, "I’d like you to take over the observatory." The son describes how he ended up accepting the challenge in an entry of his blog, Thots and Shots, titled "Moving Dad’s observatory" and online at thotsandshots.net:
"The gear my father has is vastly more expensive and advanced than what I am using. What I want is for him to enjoy the fruits of his efforts. But in his mid-80s, he professes that it is getting difficult. Kirsten (Kristen Allen, Mark Bailey's wife) immediately recognized Dad’s request as a great honor and gave me the 'get with it' look. I got the picture and said I would move it for him.
"My goal is to get the Torrey House Alpenglow Observatory up and running to the point where my father and I can run it remotely together from his home in Salt Lake City."
Mark Bailey and his son, Nick, took the observatory apart, rented a good-sized truck and hauled it to the property in Torrey.
"We did fill the thing up with the contents and with the dome itself," he said.
"And then I built a new base building." His father’s base structure was round, 8 feet in diameter. But David Bailey advised him to make the new base larger than its counterpart, providing more room inside.
"So it’s kind of a creative building," he said. "You have to imagine, you need to support an 8-foot-diameter dome on a 10-foot-square building" without dome supports inside the working space.
Then came the task of figuring out how to operate this complicated system, he said. The dome revolves, the shutters open. The telescope aims at a target. An astrophotography CCD camera hangs onto the end of the telescope behind a focusing mechanism, a field rotator and a filter wheel. All are managed by a computer in the observatory, which in turn runs through remote control.
They began the project in mid-August. He and Nick were able to work on it sporadically, assembling the dome in the garage in Torrey, hoisting it to the top of the base building one day, adjusting the bolts on the piers another. They ran an Ethernet cable, put in power, set up mounting plates and carried out a host of other tasks. If this had been a full-time job, it would have been done in two or three weeks of labor. As it was, it took around seven months.
Using the equipment was "a steep learning curve, with lots of trial and error," he wrote. Last week, he took the "first light" photograph, a beautiful view of a set of galaxies in the constellation Leo.
The family is thinking about good uses for the observatory, such as star parties, education, possibly carrying out some citizen science projects. And he intends to get more photographs, using the observatory from both ends of the state.
Besides the remote observatory, Bailey said, he enjoys working with a telescope set up in the outdoors. "I do like being out underneath the stars. The fact that I am made of stardust and I’m staring back out at the universe, self-aware, always humbles me and makes me glad to be alive."