Technology helps make Rett Walters’ celestial dreams come true
Humans have gazed at the night sky for as long as they’ve walked the Earth. But few have gazed at the stars the way Rett Walters does it. He’s got his own observatory sitting on a hilltop that overlooks Lake of the Ozarks.
On a chilly winter night he unlocks the latches holding the observatory’s roof on and pushes a button. Slowly the roof retracts, exposing the star-filled night sky. Orion is low in the sky but will soon be in range. Mars and Jupiter stand out in sharp contrast to the background constellations. Despite the haze of an approaching storm on the horizon, it’s a good night for stargazing.
Rett wakes up the 12-inch Meade telescope and its onboard computer comes to life. He enters the date and time and the big scope starts to whine. It looks into its database of celestial objects and selects two for reference, effortlessly moving to the proper coordinates. Now it knows exactly where it’s at and awaits Rett’s command.
He moves into a heated control room outfitted with no end of high-tech gear and launches a computer program. One of the three screens opens to display the sky with all of the constellations visible at this latitude. He clicks on the Pleiades, a star cluster located in the constellation Taurus, and the sound of the telescope readjusting breaks the stillness. It’s networked to the computer inside and also to a server located nearby in Rett’s home.
Rett peers through the viewfinder and the bright star cluster appears even more impressive than it is through the naked eye. Another command takes it to the Orion Nebula, visible as the middle star on Orion’s Belt. He changes the selection to Jupiter and the gas giant pops into focus with its Galilean satellites — Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto — visible. Now he moves to Mars and the fourth planet appears as a hazy orb with a red center.
Rett’s Lozwott Observatory — Lake of the Ozarks Workshop of The Telescopes — is the kind of place only an IT professional could design. He’s exactly that during working hours, serving Co-Mo Connect as its director of IT and network engineering.
His blog gives the details for any tech nerds following his progress: There are 10 Cat6 ethernet connections and a Cisco 2960 switch that uplinks the facility to the house network and the internet through a gigabit connection to Co-Mo Connect’s fiber internet service. The control room computer runs Linux and Windows 10 operating systems in a dual-boot configuration. It’s all bathed in soft red lighting that preserves his night vision.
The telescope is a 12-inch Meade LX200 Schmidt-Cassegrain model. His wife and construction helper, Tiffanie, found the telescope at an estate sale while browsing a classified newspaper. It joined a manually operated Newtonian telescope Rett built years ago.
With his digital setup, Rett can in theory stream what he is seeing through the telescope’s viewfinder anywhere.
That is an important goal for him. Rett’s father lives in Boston. He’s legally blind but can see the same celestial objects Rett enjoys as long as they are projected on a large TV screen. Part of Rett’s equipment is a digital camera that uses the telescope as its lens. Once he has it configured, he can share his view with his father.
The camera is a game changer for Rett. While the human eye is limited in its light gathering, his camera has the capability to capture the dimmest celestial objects. The computer connection tracks star movement, at least for short exposures. Software will let him stack multiple images to create depth in the final image.
He says he has a lot to learn, but his early efforts have been impressive.
Rett’s interest in amateur astronomy began at a young age and indirectly led to his IT career.
“The funny part is I got into astronomy when I was a kid, because my grandfather bought me a little telescope when I was way too young to even learn how to use it,” he says. “I also was starting to get into computers back then. The school had a mainframe that you could log into and a little database program. My first thing to do on computer was to create a database of objects in the sky. I blended my two interests back then and it’s turned into this.”
He has grand plans for his Lozwott Observatory. He wants it to serve as a resource for anyone interested in observing the wonders of the night sky.
You can follow Rett’s progress on the observatory on his blog.