Home observatories bring convenience to amateur astronomy
Even if we no longer live in the heady days of Saturn V launches and Apollo missions to the Moon, one can easily find inspiration by looking to the sky.
Fascinating stories of space exploration are still easy to find. One spacecraft finally offered detailed images of the ex-planet Pluto. Probes have snatched dust from comet tails and returned the material to Earth. And the rocket which recently launched a Tesla Roadster into space was designed for possible trips to the Moon and Mars.
It's no wonder that amateur astronomy has become such a popular hobby – and that observatory domes have become an increasingly common request in custom built homes. This feature can increase a property's price by hundreds of thousands of dollars, but light filtering mechanisms allow the observatories to be installed even in congested areas with significant light pollution.
For stargazers of more modest means, a backyard observatory is not out of the question. Several amateur astronomers have found that building a home observatory is a relatively inexpensive project.
The main impetus for creating your own astronomical facility is convenience. Dr. Darien E. Fields, vice president of academic affairs at the University of Findlay, notes on his website of astronomy photographs that a home observatory saved him considerable time. Before this addition, he had to lug around heavy equipment, spend up to an hour setting it up, and often work in frigid temperatures. With an observatory at home, the equipment was readay to go and the telescope was only a short walk away.
A dome doesn't have to be large, and the design works well for blocking light and moisture. But it's also the most expensive option. A presentation by the Museum Astronomical Resource Society of Tampa, Fla., says domes and roll-off roofs are the most popular designs for amateur observatories.
Observatories with roll-off roofs are more easily incorporated into the backyard, as they are usually designed to look like a garden shed. In fact, some plans recommend that you purchase a pre-built shed and modify it, saving you the time of building your own. The roof is mounted on rollers, allowing it to slide onto a separate frame. The MARS presentation offers a similar design, but has a flip top roof instead of one on rollers.
Some designs are simple, consisting only of a mounted telescope and a small portable building to protect it from the elements. Others are beautiful external structures, with spacious areas for imaging equipment.
Before building your home observatory, you'll want to take a few preliminary steps. The observatory site should ideally have good exposure to an open patch of dark sky. Steven Simpson, writing for Sky and Telescope, says the location should also be convenient to your home. Check with zoning or home association officials to make sure you don't need any special permissions to establish the observatory.
The first construction step in any observatory plan is to establish a concrete footing and pier to mount the telescope. This feature allows the instrument to be anchored and aligned, eliminating that lengthy step of setting up the equipment.
The pier requires the excavation of a hole, three to four feet deep, and the pouring of a concrete base for the pier. Once the pier is secured to this footing, the telescope can be mounted on it. You might want to leave the telescope mounting step until after the structure is built, but be sure that the building will give the telescope enough clearance.
A floor frame should be added around the pier, even if you're using a prebuilt shed. From there, it's just a matter of building the walls and roof around the pier or adding and modifying the prebuilt shed.
Simpson says some materials might inhibit your view, so be careful in using them. Concrete blocks, bricks, and asphalt will all radiate heat absorbed during the day, making night observations more difficult. Situate the observatory away from these areas, and go with wood for the main construction material.
Outfit the observatory with electricity, including as many electrical outlets as possible. The telescope will need power to track objects across the night sky, and the other outlets will allow you to bring in a computer or other astronomical equipment. Be sure to ground the observatory and use surge protectors.
Fields says his roll-off room observatory cost about $1,500, excluding the astronomical equipment he had already purchased. Simpson suggests that you should always plan for cost overruns, however. Budget two to three times what you estimate the project will cost you.
Adding a new structure to your property will, unfortunately, provide a new place for creatures to explore. Fields says he experienced problems with wasps building nests in the eaves, birds settling in on the rollers, and spiders and ants crawling around the interior. Take steps to evict these visitors, as they can damage equipment or prove annoying in your observation activities.
Since the observatory is a semi-permanent structure, Simpson suggests that you'll want to prepare for the future. Make sure your pier and observatory space are able to accommodate newer telescopes or any expansions you hope to make.