Amateur astronomer Rick Johnson undertook the monumental task of building his own observatory and compiling a catalog of objects he has observed. 

Astronomical catalogs have been in existence ever since the Sumerians first began recording celestial phenomena on cuneiform tablets around 3500 BC. Most subsequent civilizations kept records of their observations, which focused largely on planetary risings and settings, lunar cycles, solar eclipses, primarily for calendar-keeping purposes — it helped to know when to plant seed or when to harvest. Cataloging this information was the most efficient way of keeping track of events not only from year to year, but mainly from generation to generation.

With the advent of the telescope opening up access to much more of the visible universe, catalogs were essential for documenting the growing number of objects and categorizing them by their nature. One of our more famous catalogs blossomed out of Charles Messier’s frustration at fuzzy objects distracting him from his main focus, that of hunting for comets.

Astronomers have come to rely heavily on catalogs and today we have catalogs dedicated to single stars, double stars, galaxies, globular clusters, catalogs for X-ray sources and radio sources, you name it. Accuracy is paramount in the compiling of catalog data, and the task is daunting, the fruit of the labors of large teams of researchers. Take, for example, the latest release of the Gaia catalog that counts some 1,692,919,135 entries.

But you don’t need to be a professional astronomer to get involved in catalog-making. Just ask Rick Johnson.

A New Kind of Catalog

According to Jack Dunn, Rick Johnson is a "virtual Renaissance Man and closely resembles Santa Claus in the winter."
Jack Dunn

Rick, a founding member of the Prairie Astronomy Club of Lincoln, Nebraska, had his passion in astronomy sparked when, as a small child, he witnessed a total lunar eclipse in September 1950. He started out, like so many, with binoculars. But then he read an article in 1953 discussing Mars’s upcoming opposition in the summer of 1954 and decided to upgrade his instrumentation. His father borrowed a book on astronomy from the library, the last three pages of which had instructions on how to build your own telescope and from where to order the kit. So Rick set about — at eight years old! — building his own telescope and grinding the lenses using only those three pages (eventually his father had to buy the book since the library wouldn’t allow them to borrow it any further). Rick persisted, and the telescope was ready for Mars’s opposition, but disappointingly he didn’t see any canals (nor did anyone else).

Shortly thereafter, Rick stuck a 35-mm camera up to the eyepiece of his telescope, and the astrophotography bug bit him. Jack Dunn (also of the Prairie Astronomy Club) remembers that Rick designed his own chemical developer for processing his images. “It was cheap to make and far more effective than commercial ones. But Rick quickly adapted to computerization of astronomy,” Jack writes in an email.

Rick built his observatory by a lake at the southern end of Paul Bunyan State Forest in Minnesota after he retired.
Rick Johnson

When Rick retired, he and his wife moved to Minnesota where they built a dream retirement home on a lake at the southern end of the Paul Bunyan State Forest, miles away from villages and other sources of light pollution. From the very start, he had plans to build an observatory on the grounds of his new home where he could pursue astrophotography.

Which he did. Rick’s observatory houses a 14-inch LX200R and plenty of equipment for photography. From the very beginning, Rick photographed objects and methodically cataloged them. He’s especially interested in objects that are less familiar. Jack Dunn continues, “One of the hallmarks of Rick’s photography is that it doesn’t just cover the standard astrophotography objects you are used to seeing. Sure they are there [in the catalog]. But there are a huge number of deep-sky objects that have really interesting stories.”

Ron Veys presented Rick with a lifetime achievement award in 2006.
The Prairie Astronomy Club

Rick has always made his work freely available to those on his mailing list which includes schools, fellow amateurs, and even professionals. And now Rick’s catalog of more than 1,600 deep-sky images is available online. He has been continuously updating his catalog throughout the years, and Mark Dahmke (another Prairie Astronomy Club member) has been instrumental in assembling the database and making it accessible online.

Deep-Sky Stories

The “stories” Jack refers to are the reams of information on each source that Rick has included in his catalog. Not only are all the images of the sources in the database, but every image is accompanied by copious notes. These notes include physical data on the source, the history of early observations, and, most pleasingly, Rick’s own experiences in observing them. Many images also have useful annotations, as Mark Dahmke notes, “There are whole fields of galaxies — all labeled for identification in what must have been a painstaking process.”

Among the images you will find in the database are 24th-magnitude gravitational arcs, the remains of the collision of two asteroids, and a previously unknown planetary nebula for which Rick has been credited with the discovery image. Rick also took the image that helped prove that the jet in Arp 192 didn’t actually exist!

Why don’t you see for yourself all the hard work that Rick has done, and do as I have . . . click on random image names and lose yourself in the wonderful world of galaxies and nebulae and comets and asteroids.  I’m sure Rick’s work will undoubtedly prove invaluable to generations to come.


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