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SPIE Professional April 2008

Reaching for the Skies

A respected CCD astronomical imager and educator says success with his hobby and his career stems from “the love of the sky and the tools to reach for it.”

By Brian Lula

My passion for the sky began in 1960 when my Dad took me outside one evening to watch the ECHO 1 satellite glide over our house in Toronto. I was only 5 at the time, but from that point on, I remember going to the library almost weekly to read books on astronomy, telescopes, space exploration, and machines.

We were very poor, so getting a telescope was out of the question even though I waited anxiously every Christmas for one to appear under the tree. When I was 10, I chanced upon a broken cardboard telescope that was sticking out of a neighbor’s garbage can. With lenses I removed from an old “box” camera (bought for pennies at a Salvation Army store), I tinkered with that scope until I was able to make it work.

What an unbelievable sight when I pointed the scope at the moon for my “first light!” I could actually see individual craters on the moon. The optical quality was truly suspect, but to this day, few sights through a telescope have been as memorable.

Through high school, every extra-curricular project in my mechanical drafting and machine shop classes involved making a part for my telescope. In fact, I won a high school achievement award for both machine shop and mechanical drafting, and one of the fathers in the audience at my graduation offered me a summer job at his company as a machinist. I worked there as a production machinist for the remainder of my schooling. I couldn’t have been more fortunate because it paid for my education and living expenses and the flexible hours accommodated my class schedule.

In my mechanical engineering classes at college, every design and fabrication project conveniently centered on a specific telescope component or system that was part of my “master” plan. I had a mission and was creative incorporating various technologies into my projects to satisfy the curriculum requirements.

One such project was a mirror-grinding machine, but it had to incorporate pneumatic and hydraulic control. I convinced my professors that grinding, polishing and correcting a large aspheric mirror was a significant mechanical engineering project if one was to understand the mechanisms for glass fracture and wear patterns during grinding and then material flow during polishing. With the promise I would introduce a new technology to our engineering class, the college bought me a 12.5-inch mirror grinding kit from Edmund Scientific, and away I went working on it with the grinding machine I had built the previous semester.

The next project was an observatory-class telescope mount and then a primary mirror suspension system. I am truly grateful to my teachers and professors for their continual encouragement and support.

My first full-time job after college was in the engineering department of the company where I had worked as a machinist during school. Having developed production skills there in machining as well as metal forming and welding, I had an advantage over the newly hired younger engineers in the company. This led to early supervisory roles and a little extra money for a larger telescope.


Elephant’s Trunk Nebula in IC 1396
Photographing the Galaxies

The advent of CCD cameras for amateur astronomers in the mid 1990s sent a shock wave through the astronomical imaging community. For those of us who had worked with the complexity of film emulsions and its shortcomings, the new CCD technology was revolutionary. What had previously taken hours with film could now be recorded in minutes and with greater depth due to the quantum efficiency of the CCD. Instead of waiting days or weeks—or possibly never—you could see immediately after exposure whether the acquisition was successful.

Lula designed and built Heaven’s Glory Observatory I in his backyard in central Massachusetts with the help of his entire family. It was completed in 1996.

The CCD camera was also wonderfully linear compared to film, which experienced reciprocity failure over longer exposures, an effect analogous to a car slowing down the more you drive it.

Since the mid 1990s, the ever-increasing goals of higher resolution, longer exposure, and wider field in astronomical imaging placed new demands on the optical and mechanical performance of even amateur astronomical equipment. I learned many hard lessons building new equipment—and a 12-foot-domed Heaven’s Glory Observatory in my backyard—to keep pace.

Logo for SPIE Astronomical Telescopes and InstrumentationMany of these engineering issues remain as hot topics for the next generation of extremely large, ground-based telescopes at SPIE’s conference on Astronomical Telescopes and Instrumentation.

Fatherly Glory

Brian Lula's Heaven's Glory Observatories are dedicated, in part, to his father.

"My Dad was very critical in the early years when he saw me spending hard-earned money on mirror-grinding kits or parts for my telescopes," Lula says.

"He eventually came to understand what it meant to me. Before Dad passed away in 1999, I showed him some of the new images I had taken through a new 20-inch scope I had just built. We enjoyed talking about how my 'stupid' telescope-making ideas had turned out."

Shutter Bug

To say I was bitten by the astronomical imaging bug is putting it mildly.

Every clear night is a red carpet invitation to explore the heavens, and I have frequently attempted to go deeper than even professional observatories had gone before. In the early days of amateur CCD astroimaging, single exposures of five minutes were considered lengthy even though that matched the performance of long-exposure film. We were quite satisfied with that, but as the years progressed, we stretched these out to 10 then 20 and now even up to 60 minutes for a single exposure.

Lula says he can’t think of a better use for a kitchen table than to work on a telescope in the wee hours of the morning.

Total exposure times of 30 to 40 hours to capture the full depth of very faint astronomical objects are also increasingly common with 100-plus-hour exposures being reported for mosaics where an imager stitches together a much larger image field from single image frames.

Over the last five years, the quest for imaging depth has also prompted an exodus of serious imagers from suburban areas to dark sky sites in the mountains of the U.S. Southwest, Chile, Australia, and the Canary Islands—precisely where the professional installations are and for the same reasons.

This quest was also compelling for me. In 2004, I began construction of a remote-controlled imaging observatory in the mountains of New Mexico near the National Solar Observatory in Sunspot. Heaven’s Glory Observatory II became operational in January 2006 and remote-controllable from my home base 2500 miles away in central Massachusetts—or anywhere—in February 2007.

To operate the observatory from wherever I happen to be in the world is quite a thrill.

Serious astronomical imagers seek out the dark skies of mountainous areas in Chile, Australia, the Canary Islands or the American Southwest. Lula built his remote-controlled Heaven’s Glory Observatory II in New Mexico.
Hobby Helps Career

For 25 years, my professional career has remained close to my intrinsic interest in optics, precision mechanisms, and astronomical instrumentation. I’ve held a number of leadership positions in engineering and corporate management, including president of the North America operations of Physik Instrumente for the last 14 years. PI is a world leader in piezo-based nanopositioners and manufactures piezo stages and actuators for many applications in semiconductor, microscopy, and professional astronomy instrumentation.

Many professional astronomical telescopes use PI’s hexapod micropositioners and high-speed tip/tilt positioners for secondary and tertiary mirror collimation and image stabilization, respectively. KECK, UKIRT, SUBARU, SALT, GEMINI, LAMOST, ALMA, VLT are but a few of the projects for which we have provided motion systems. I am truly in awe of the ability of our engineers and scientists to design and manufacture products that satisfy the demanding nanopositioning applications astronomers need.

Networking and Mentoring

For many years, the quest to create telescopes, observatories, and images was a private exercise because of time constraints with family, career, and church, and I had very little interaction with other enthusiasts. Now with the Internet, it is much easier to correspond with others, post images to the Web, and seek and provide advice. My Web site (www.heavensgloryobservatory.com) became quite active and so did my interaction with local astronomy clubs and schools. I also began to be invited to speak at local and national gatherings of amateur telescope makers. This outreach was rewarding but especially when young people were involved. No one looking for the first time at the moon or Saturn through a telescope eyepiece cannot be stirred emotionally.

NGC6888 Crescent Nebula of Cygnus.

Sh2-157 Emission Nebula Region in Cassiopeia. Both of Brian Lula’s narrowband images were taken from Heaven’s Glory Observatory I in rural Massachusetts in November 2007. The exposure times were 240, 225, and 225 minutes, respectively, with 15-minute sub frame exposures using Ha, OIII, and SII filters in an FLI 6303E CCD camera with his 12.5-inch F/4 homebuilt Newtonian Astrograph.

My hope is that these simple interactions with the wonders of the heavens will be the seeds for these young people that germinate into careers in engineering or science.

When young people today express a desire to learn about telescope making, I encourage them strongly to pursue this hobby. The sky is truly the limit as they consider careers based on optical technologies. Understanding the fundamentals of telescope system design, from optics to mechanics to controls, can vault a young person to the head of his/her engineering or science class.

The growth in optical-based communications, digital imaging, and optical-based sensors in a multitude of consumer products and defense/security applications means that opto-mechanical and electro-optical engineers can look forward to rewarding career opportunities. It is amazing to me how many of my SPIE colleagues can point to an interest in optics that developed from some interaction in their childhood with telescopes.

Priorities and Balance

How did I find time for all the telescope and observatory construction projects and the acquisition and processing of so many astronomical images?

As many of my colleagues are aware, there are many working hours between sundown and sunup. If it is your passion, it becomes a priority. I can’t count the number of times I saw the sun rise as I built my telescope equipment and accessories or had an all-night imaging session. (The ability to automate observatory operation couldn’t have come at a better time. “All-nighters” take much more of a toll these days, and increasing age makes one re-evaluate priorities.)

The “business end” of Brian Lula’s 20-inch RC telescope in New Mexico shows his custom designed dual port scanning off-axis star guiders, instrument rotator, CCD cameras, etc. Photo taken in December 2005, just before his Heaven’s Glory Observatory II in New Mexico became operational.

More important, though, is balance and commitment. I have worked hard to keep this passion from interfering with other important priorities of my life. At times, it hasn’t been easy. My wife Linda has been patient and understanding, and I am very thankful. This work could never have been accomplished without her support. She helped many times in the design and construction of the observatories. I made them look sterile and scientific, but her input made the observatories quite aesthetic.

Linda has her own passion for interior design. And by example and encouragement from us, our three daughters have found their own personal and constructive passions. (One daughter is receiving her BSc this year in biomedical imaging from RIT.)

Image Challenge

There are many things that conspire to ruin an astronomical image, ranging from air turbulence, light pollution gradients, focus stability and tracking, collimation, lost guide stars, equipment malfunctions, wind, bugs, etc.

One of the most difficult challenges is processing the images. It has taken me years to learn the many software tools and to develop techniques that provide a delicate balance between aesthetics and relative accuracy in the color balance of stars, galactic nebula, and galaxies in RGB compositions. I have spent thousands of hours on this aspect alone and have found it sometimes takes longer to process an image than to acquire it.

The efforts have paid off, however, with many of my images appearing in popular astronomy magazines, professional trade journals, TV news programs and in a personal exhibit at the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum in Washington, D.C.

cover of the print edition, SPIE Professional magazineEditor's Note: On the cover of the print edition of SPIE Professional and above is Lula's dramatic photo of Elephant's Trunk Nebula in IC 1396, which was featured in NASA's Astronomy Picture of the Day on Oct. 18, 2007. Nearly 3,000 light-years from Earth, the relatively faint IC 1396 complex covers a large region of the sky, spanning about 5 degrees.

Lula exposed the interstellar dust and gas from the constellation Cepheus for 16 hours with 6nm bandpass Ha, OIII, and SII filters with an SBIG STL6303E CCD camera, and a 32cm f/4 Newtonian Astrograph. It was then processed in a modified Hubble color palette. The filters transmit the light from hydrogen (in green) sulfur (in red), and oxygen (in blue) atoms.

  • The Lijiang Telescope in southwest China is the world’s largest automatically controlled eye looking into the sky. Built by Telescope Technologies Limited in England for 3 million euros, the telescope uses a Schott-made mirror substrate 2.45 meters in diameter.
  • The $400 million Large Synoptic Survey Telescope under development in Chile is expected to begin celestial observations in 2015, surveying the entire sky every three nights and quickly making the images available on the Internet with a camera that will be the world’s largest and most powerful digital device. The LSST is a public-private partnership headquartered in Tucson, AZ.
  • SOFIA, the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, is a literal flying eye on the sky. The joint project of NASA and the German Aerospace Center is a 19-ton telescope that can get a clear view of the universe from the tail of a jumbo jet flying at 12,000 meters. (http://www.sofia.usra.edu/)

Brian Lula

Brian Lula is president of Physik Instrumente LP, a world leader in nanopositioning technologies, and secretary/treasurer of SPIE where he serves on the Board of Directors and as chair of the Finance Committee. A new elected SPIE Fellow, he has a degree in mechanical engineering from Centennial College, Ontario, and completed advanced engineering courses at the University of Michigan. He is a lifetime member of the Springfield Telescope Makers and a judge of its national amateur telescope making competition held at its annual Stellafane Convention in Vermont. More information and photographs of Lula's astronomical images and telescope making:

DOI: 10.1117/2.4200804.09

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