Hobbyists to Heroes: Santa Barbara Instrument Group (SBIG)

How five friends went from being telescope amateurs to big-time pros.

SBIG owners Alan Holmes (left) and Mike Barber holding the latest camera model, STX-16803.
Paul Wellman

When a group of five friends started staring at the night skies over Santa Barbara back in the 1980s, no one would have guessed that their after-work passion would turn into a full-time profession. That’s what happened to the founders of the Santa Barbara Instrument Group (SBIG), which is today one of the biggest players on the world’s astronomy stage.

“We were all amateur astronomers as a hobby, but we didn’t want to just go out and look at stars,” said Mike Barber, who was working as an attorney at the time. “We wanted to do some real work.” Specifically, they wanted to track mysterious gamma ray bursts, which required focusing their telescopes on certain spots and then, throughout the night, frequently going outside to tweak the angle. “It was tedious,” recalled Barber, so they decided to make a system that would automatically follow points in the sky.

To do so, they purchased a brand-new tool called a charge-coupled device, or CCD – which today is in everyone’s cell phone – and built a tracker. “It worked so well we decided to make them available commercially,” said Barber, and they struck stargazing gold, eventually developing a whole line of CCD cameras.

“We started in a garage,” said Barber, “and now we are one of the largest suppliers of CCD cameras to amateurs and universities and colleges in the world.”

See sbig.com.

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