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Night! Camera! Action! Shooting the stars

Rick Johnson has his eyes on the skies.

Deep in the forest of Hubbard County, Johnson's celestial observatory monitors stars, black holes, nebulas, asteroids, moons, supernovas and planets.

He delights in finding "uncataloged" objects by pointing his telescope into a seemingly empty region of space.

"Only the very rich collectors of art, coins and stamps can ever hope to collect the very rare and beautiful of their genre," he said. "But the amateur astronomer does have this ability. Therein lies the main attraction for me.

"That and it constantly stretches the mind literally to the ends of the universe."

Johnson is an unlikely space cowboy. He's led an eclectic life, first as a CPA, then a tax attorney (although his only client as an attorney was himself), a computer geek, an inventor, a teacher and finally a happily retired amateur astronomer.

Throughout his careers, the constant in his life has been space studies. He built his first telescope in 1953 when he read an ad in the back of a magazine that promised he could build a whopper for $30. It took nearly two years, and some outside expertise.

"It was six feet and 200 pounds," he said. "I wasn't."

It also was a bit fuzzy. The handmade eyepieces weren't quite right. "I looked at Mars and it was an amoeba," Johnson recalled. "I thought the telescope was lousy."

His father, an architectural engineer and CPA, encouraged Rick's love of science. Stargazing was something the Johnsons could do together in their Nebraska back yard.

But Life magazine also enticed Johnson to the world of space. Life and scientific periodicals charted the multi-million dollar progress of the massive 200-inch telescope that went into action at Palomar Observatory near San Diego 50 years ago. Many magazines had followed the 13 years it took to grind Palomar's eyepiece, dubbed the "Big Eye," to the desired form.

Johnson followed Edwin Hubble's photographic exposures from Palomar in early 1949. Palomar's stellar observations started immediately with a sky survey map, followed by studies of galaxy formations and evolution. The studies of starburst galaxies and violent events in space captured the public's fantasy.

In 1953 Life chronicled Palomar's look at Mars, and wrote a story about whether the fabled canals of Mars existed, phenomena that an impressionable youngster embraced as a lifelong crusade.

His father had gotten tired of helping Rick schlep the behemoth telescope outdoors every night, so Philip Johnson purchased his son a smaller, more portable model. It became an all-consuming passion when the superior eyepieces of the small scope showed a galaxy Rick never imagined.

Summers the Johnson family came to Hubbard County lakes to vacation, and Rick Johnson eventually nestled his home and observatory on a bluff overlooking the forest.

There's nothing amateur about Johnson's expertise. He's in touch with NASA, McDonnell Douglas and all the major observatories. He gets celestial alerts of upcoming phenomenon via e-mail and springs into action, training his 14-inch custom adapted scope into the sky. He's part of a network of astronomers who trade information, sightings and astroimages.

He submits his photos and theories to numerous Web sites and contributes answers to online forums as the in-house "Ask an Astronomer" expert, fielding questions from curious science buffs, fans and wanna-bes.

His observatory has a roof that slides off to reveal a huge telescope - one of eight Johnson has owned in his life. He was too sentimentally attached to part with his first one. "It's in pieces in the basement," he said.

Johnson's career path took several curves on the road to retirement. He developed a rare paralysis as a tax accountant and decided to reduce his stress level.

He quit "fighting with the IRS" and began teaching accounting and business law at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln to avoid the stress he felt was exacerbating his condition.

He slowly recovered.

In 1961 he and some colleagues formed the Prairie Astronomy Club in Lincoln. They eventually hatched the idea of a community observatory and in 1974 forged a local partnership with the business community and individuals that gave birth to the Hyde Memorial Observatory. Johnson supervised that facility in Lincoln for 27 years.

One day Johnson's teaching career was interrupted by a fortuitous knock on his office door by the college dean.

Apple Computers was in a quandary. Its Apple 2 computers wouldn't process accounting software efficiently and the company needed help. The university had positioned itself as the go-to source for business problems.

Johnson agreed to look at the issue but needed Apple's source code to break down the problem. When Apple refused the request, Johnson, acting as his own attorney, sued to get the information. Apple eventually relented. Johnson successfully rewrote the software.

Johnson's legal victory and personal triumph gave birth to a side career. "Suddenly I was the small computer guru of Lincoln kind of overnight," he said.

When his sideline income eclipsed his university salary within the next year, Johnson bid teaching goodbye and went into business as a computer consultant.

And, as an inveterate tinkerer, Johnson, an avid Ham radio enthusiast, developed circuit software for Ham radios. He published what was a patentable idea in a Ham radio magazine, which attracted interest.

Another Ham radio operator brought the idea to the attention of aerospace contractor McDonnell Douglas. The company patented the idea under its name and paid Johnson royalties, eventually selling the idea to Panasonic.

"That paid for my retirement," Johnson said.

Johnson was free to be a star-struck sightseer full-time, although he did teach astronomy courses at Nebraska Wesleyan University in Lincoln part-time.

Johnson and his wife, who brought her own telescope into the marriage, retired and built their dream home in the north woods several years ago.

Rick spends his time in a small room full of computers, electronic gadgets and software, where he controls the telescope and stays in touch with fellow stargazers. Holly is a passionate quilter and spends her time in the lower level with fabrics, threads and quilt patterns.

The monstrous scope atop Johnson's observatory is a commercial model he constantly tinkers with.

"It really wasn't that expensive," he said. "There are boats out on the lakes that cost more than this."

His astrophotos are labors of love. He trains the telescope into the darkest regions of the universe light years away, hoping to find the unknown, undiscovered objects.

Once captured, mostly by lengthy time-lapse photographs, he starts the labor-intensive process of developing the images into the celestial wonders he posts online. Many take days to perfect. Others take months.

He has two separate cameras attached to his telescope, one for photometry and one for imaging.

The raw images come out black and white with 65,000 levels of gray scale. Typical digital cameras have 256 levels. Those initial photos have bright areas in the background and cloudy-looking spots he calls "donuts of dust specks."

He cleans up the space dust, which he compares to seeing "coal dust at midnight. It's very dirty in space," he explains.

He puts the images through astronomy calibration software to get the intensity and light fields just right, then starts the laborious colorization process.

"Voila!" he says after the colored image pops up on his Dell laptop screen. He then whirls his chair around to a desktop computer behind him and flips through a slide show of images he's produced. "Here's a galaxy that looks like a loon complete with red eye," he says pointing.

"Here's a star-eating leech," he says when another image washes over the screen. Here's one that looks like a chimp's head... Some galaxies are just plain weird."

He admires the camaraderie of astronomers he mingles with on the Internet daily. Unlike other professions, he says astronomers are a noble bunch. They collaborate rather than compete. They send their images and works out to all before publication, in a peer vetting process.

"When you're explaining a phenomenon you're focused so narrowly," he said. By sending it out, an astronomer can ask, "Is it worth pursuing? Has somebody else done it? Have I overlooked something? Have I made a stupid mistake?" The community of astronomers will usually respond constructively.

Johnson spends 10-12 hours a day in his observatory, unless earthly tasks take precedence. He's been clearing downed trees from recent windstorms.

In between trees, he searches for active galactic nuclei (AGN), compact luminescent regions at the center of a galaxy. AGNs are used to discover distant objects, a task Johnson is well suited to. "I find it relaxing, exciting and frustrating," he said.

He's only hindered by clouds and rain.

He really doesn't harbor thoughts about whether there's intelligent life out in the universe. "On the philosophical side I guess I'd say that if there wasn't, it's a tremendous waste of energy," he said.

Johnson would like to form a Hubbard County astronomy club. Interested persons can contact Sarah at the Enterprise.