Attorney-astronomer records skies from home observatory
By Ken Esten Cooke
and Austin R. Eck
As man looks to the heavens, he is able to see his small place in the endless universe. One man with an observatory northwest of Fredericksburg is peering into the skies to see the vastness that man is only beginning to understand.
Ken Kattner is a business attorney by day and amateur astronomer by night. From his Putman Mountain Observatory, he scans and records the universe — from supernovas to far-off galaxies — and documents his findings on a website that also serves as a weather station for local agriculture producers. He has invested a considerable amount of time and effort in his home to help him record events in the skies.
His interest in astronomy began in high school, but was interrupted by college and career.
“For me, it all began when I was in high school,” Kattner said. “One day, my father brought home a Celestron eight-inch cassegrain telescope, and that iconic orange tube sparked an entire movement of amateur astronomy.”
Kattner spent many hours with his father gazing through the Celestron, looking at things like the rings of Saturn and the great red spot on Jupiter. Craters on the moon were razor sharp and deep-looking.
His high school in Dallas (St. Mark’s) had a planetarium and observatory with an even larger telescope, and there he learned how to attach a film camera to telescopes.
“I had the run of the observatory, and would spend long hours trying to capture pictures of galaxies, nebula and planets,” he said. He dreamed of one day having his own observatory.
A dream delayed
College and his legal career put astronomy on the back burner. The orange Celestron was sold and law school and ensuing career swallowed most of his time.
But on a return flight from an out-of-town court hearing, he picked up a copy of Astronomy magazine at a newsstand. He read it front to back, and found that there had been tremendous advances in the technology, including ones that helped with the major problem of the earth’s rotation, which thwarted many a long-exposure camera shot.
He learned of highly sensitive CCD (charge-coupled device) cameras that took digital photos, and of new software that could combat earlier challenges.
City lights, however, make new equipment useless, so trips to rural areas are a requirement for amateur astronomers.
For Kattner, the decision to find darker skies was spurred after losing a battle with city lights and city wildlife.
“One night, I was sitting out in the driveway and we ordered out Chinese food,” he said. “I’m struggling and cussing with the equipment, I put the food down next to the telescope. I try to look at something on the computer and I look down and see an opossum eating my food.”
Frustrated by the lack of star-gazing under city lights, the Kattners began looking west.
“My wife, Laurie (an interior designer), and I decided to go to a Texas Star Party, held near Big Bend, and bring along my portable telescope,” he said. “Laurie suggested we stop in Fredericksburg to spend the night on the way, and we stayed again on our return. Little did I know that Laurie had decided to look at parcels of land near Fredericksburg.”
The couple drove hundreds of miles on back roads looking for the darkest skies, and settled on about 170 acres about 20 miles out of town. There was no electricity or water, but the dream of a permanent observatory had begun.
Kattner worked with local architect Eric Mustard to design and re-design the observatory. Laurie made sure a kitchen, bedroom, bath and other conveniences were added, resulting in a small cabin.
Mustard helped design underground power, phone and internet service with a well and reservoir tank for backup to the rainwater collection system.
Kattner chose to go with a dome as opposed to a flat roof, as it can rotate and offer better protection against windy nights. The top of the Ash brand dome is 24 feet off the ground.
A two-foot-diameter cement pier to guard the telescope against vibrations was set 10 feet into the ground and rises 16 feet above the surface. The pier is isolated from the cabin to guard against normal vibrations.
The CCD camera takes images that are routed through an “observing plan.” The computer can tell if clouds or rain develop and delay or halt the camera and telescope altogether.
Still, in one night of imaging, nearly a gigabyte of digital pictures are collected.
He then processes them using imaging software. While no research facilities currently tap into his findings, he hopes to make them available to astronomers and academics someday.
“It’s just breathtaking to step outside under the canopy of stars and see the Milky Way stretching across the heavens,” he said.
The observatory is connected to a weather monitoring station that several of his neighbors can access through his website on www.putmanmountainobservatory.com. Historical weather information is also stored on weatherunderground.com.
There also is a cloud sensor and a dark sky monitor, the same type Kattner helped install at Enchanted Rock.
“We hope nearby cities and rural dwellings will be mindful to protect our pristine dark skies in order to preserve their beauty for everyone to enjoy,” he said.
Kattner is worried about light creep from growing Fredericksburg. As the town expands, so does its glow on the horizon. When dealing with dark skies, even the glow from San Antonio’s vast sea of lights can be seen from Putman Mountain Observatory.
The Hill Country Astronomers group has been pleased to see Kattner’s involvement.
He volunteered to help fill out the application so that Enchanted Rock State Natural Area — five miles away, as the crow flies — could be named a Dark Sky Park, one of the first two in Texas.
“Also, utilizing his legal expertise, he did extensive research and had a major role in drafting the Outdoor Lighting Ordinance just passed this evening by the city council, which will help preserve our dark skies in the Fredericksburg area,” said Jason Fry, HCA president.
“His vision for the observatory is to eventually build a teaching observatory and invite students to go online and be able to image the sky themselves,” said Mark Ward, HCA vice president and astrophotography expert. “The images he can take are breathtaking, about the best amateur images of anyone I’ve ever seen. He’s given a lot of people something to think about when they think about what can be done and what astronomy does for ourselves and others.”
So why do all this? Kattner said it goes back to watching stars with his father.
“I had to lay my father to rest last year, and I thought about what I want to leave for future generations,” he said. “This will be my own contribution and I hope it inspires others to continue to look to the stars.”