Hello and welcome to Valley Astro, a website about the practice of amateur astronomy and astrophotography. My name is Brian Downey. My day job title is Public Cloud Architect, but I dabble in business on the side, most recently designing and co-owning a wireless Internet service provider in northern California. But first and foremost, I’m a lifelong space nerd!
My interest in astronomy began as a child, fascinated by space and anything NASA-related. In the mid 1980s I received an entry-level telescope as a birthday present from my family. This gift opened up a whole world! Even today, the night sky is something in which I find peace, solace, beauty, and wonder. While some may rely on spirituality or meditation, the pinpoints of ancient light in the night sky are my elixir. I am continually intrigued by what’s out there waiting to be revealed by a telescope, and the curiosity I had as a child has never waned.
In the mid 2000s, my entire family relocated to a rural area of the U.S. west coast, far from the volatile weather of the midwestern “rust belt”. Located hundreds of miles from light-polluted skies of heavily populated cities and liberated by months of clear & dry weather, my passion for the hobby of astronomy went into overdrive. Soon after we settled the first “serious” telescope purchase, a 12″ Dobsonian reflector, was made. Then came a more a portable 8″ Newtonian with which I could take in the gorgeous pitch-black skies of the surrounding mountains and national parks. In the surrounding high altitudes, night viewing of the Milky Way is bright enough to be mistaken for high clouds. The first time I saw it literally made my jaw drop. Eventually, of course, I ended up taking the 12″ Dob as well!
The progression of any serious amateur astronomer beyond larger & larger aperture telescopes is astrophotography, and my experience was no different. Pictured is the initial astrophotography configuration in use circa 2013, at my favorite viewing spot, near the peak of a volcanic dome. Designed around the 8″ Newtonian, it served as the foundation for everything to come as well as an easel for learning the art of night sky CCD imaging. The truck camper acted as a mobile astronomy headquarters, staying warm during those cold & clear mountain nights at 8500′ altitude. We were also known to sneak in a hike to the volcanic geothermal features of the park during the day!
Things took a turn for the absolutely bonkers around 2015 when I purchased the perfect home. Located a higher in the foothills of the northern Sacramento valley at around 750 feet, slightly more rural than my prior residence, skies were plenty dark enough to see the bands of the Milky Way from my own back yard! Imaging in my own driveway was a revelation and now an obsession — what came next is the Happy Valley Observatory.
After extensive research and consulting with other zany hobbyists that had taken the home observatory plunge, a 10’x12′ roll-off roof design was selected. Constructed by my brother and I summer of 2015, the observatory is based on the excellent SkyShed design, with modifications to better adapt it for the specific location. Modifications included extension of the roll-off roof another 3′ beyond the shed for less obstruction of the southern sky and motorizing the roof for autonomous operation.
No longer restricted by travel or time, the hobby elevated to all new levels, but also introduced far more software and complexity than ever before. It has taken a few years of tinkering, trial and error to sort things in a manner that works to my expectations, but the entire process has been enjoyable and highly educational. Better still, the science behind the image acquisition processes I had learned in early in my astrophotography experience became more clear and repeatable, enabling highly accurate measurements and more detailed photos than ever before.
Now here in 2019, my hobby, Valley Astro, expands on to the Internet via this new website and soon to be developed YouTube channel. What a ride!
With nearly a decade of experience under my belt, I hope my experiences and knowledge assist and entertain those new to the hobby, or just plain curous. Enjoy, and clear skies!