Saturday, October 7, 2017

My Observatories--a Brief History

Like most amateur astronomers, I dreamed for years about having my own observatory.  And it remained just that, a dream, until I acquired a Meade 14 inch ACF scope. I’d always wanted a large aperture scope, and I toyed with the idea of a big dob—18” to 20” aperture. But I also loved GOTO scopes and adding those capabilities to a dob added a lot to the price. The (at that time) newly-reengineered OTA and mount for the Meade 14 inch ACF offered large aperture and GOTO performance at a very reasonable price.

I remember the day the scope arrived in very large boxes from a freight delivery truck. I opened the OTA box and was, frankly, terrified by the size and massiveness of the scope. I stored the OTA in my home, with the tripod in the garage. Using it involved having my son help me haul the huge storage box into the driveway and then lifting the massive forks onto the tripod. Fortunately, the scope set up from that point on was fully automated, so once mounted, I was up and running quickly.
But then I decided to start imaging. Adding the ultrawedge to my setup complicated things a lot! I lost the scope’s auto setup capabilities and the extra few inches height the wedge added made it much harder to put the scope on the mount. It was obvious the I had to do something or the scope was likely to spend most clear nights in its storage box.

Enter JMI Wheelie Bars—a real life saver!  With the scope on the Wheelie Bars, I could just roll it out of the garage and within 5 minutes, be aligned and imaging. The only issue was that my home is surrounded by trees—much of the sky and many of the interesting objects are frequently below the tree line. If I was to get the most out the scope, I needed an observatory in a place where I could see more sky.

I toyed with the idea of buying some land out in the county. I was talking to a friend who ran a tree plantation out in the county and he made a very generous offer—could build an observatory on his land! I drove out the plantation and found an ideal site with a huge horizon. Add to this the fact that it was a dark sky site, and it seemed I had found the perfect place!

The only issue—I had a very limited budget to build an observatory.

Then I found an article online on how someone had converted an inexpensive 10’ x 12’ steel shed into a runoff observatory. This offered a perfect solution. I didn’t have much in the way of DIY skills, but I decided to give it a go! I had to build a roof frame for the rolloff, reinforce the walls and add some insulation, but the job wasn't too had, even for my limited skills.

The result was Walnut Ridge Observatory:
Roof frame under construction

Runoff frame installed on castors and anchored

Interior frame complete

Insulation in place

Hardboard walls installed

The Observatory is almost complete

Runoff frame built from treated lumber

The runoff works!

Holes cut in floor for tripod

Desk, scope, and Plaque Installed

The observatory was a great facility. I ran power from a nearby barn and I could be up and running is less than 5 minutes. Add to that a huge horizon and dark skies, and I was in heaven!

For a while…

There were a couple on nagging problems. One was that the observatory was on a plantation. That meant I had to unlock, open and close, and relock large farm gates to get to the site. In addition, it was a 9 mile drive to the plantation, a drive which seemed to get longer every time I made it. The drive back after a long session was not something I looked forward to. I began to dread clear evenings which I hated to waste, but the almost 20-mile round trip was getting to be a challenge. I had a great site, the ability to start observing quickly, but it was complicated by a long drive and farm gates.

It is a truism that the best scope for you is the one you use most and the 14 was at risk of being used only very occasionally.

With that in mind, I started looking for options nearer home.

The runoff shed had worked well—it had withstood near-tornadic and gale-force winds, but I was never able to completely waterproof it—there were small leaks in several places, so the scope had to be covered at all times. Add to this Indiana humidity and there were times the scope was dripping under its cover. I decided another steel shed would not work.

It was then that I discovered a product made by a Canadian company founded and run by a passionate observer who also happened to be a rock musician—Wayne Parker's Skyshed. Although they offered several different designs, including runoffs, I was more interested in the Skyshed POD. Small, expandable, waterproof, and (above all) with a dome (don’t all amateurs, deep in their hearts, really want a dome?), it offered perfection…if the scope would fit.

After a few very helpful conversations with Wayne Parker, the owner of Skyshed, I took delivery of a 5-bay, insulated pod with black bay interiors.
Lots of boxes!
Like the scope, the delivery was mildly terrifying—a collection of huge boxes that completely filled my garage!  The POD is made of thick, playground-style plastic—no need to paint and no problems with termites, rust, etc. Even in the boxes, it looked formidably robust!

And they are BIG boxes!

The first thing I did was to do a rough assembly of the walls in the driveway so see just how well the scope would fit—and it was perfect, even for such a big scope. Not too tight and with a good amount of room for equipment, chairs, etc.

Checking the fit

Then I got my break on a site. My wife worked as a teacher at a local Montessori School and they were highly interested in science and astronomy. I asked them if I could site the observatory there and, in exchange, offer observing nights and outreach programs. They agreed, and the Indiana POD observatory was built in their grounds.  While the horizon and sky conditions were not as good as those at the plantation, they were much better than at my home. I had a decent view of the eastern, southern, and northern sky, but I was blocked to the west by a building. It seemed a good compromise, as other potential locations on the grounds had interfering trees. I also could not get electrical power, but a combination of a Celestron Power Tank and a portable generator solved those problems.

The POD installed!

The build was easy as Skyshed had an excellent video to help assembly. Wayne was also available in real-time whenever I ran into a problem—superb customer support! The POD is watertight, but I added the extra insurance of the POD cover, just in case. The result—even in storm-force winds and driving rain, the observatory stays perfectly dry!

Checking the autoguider computer

An imaging run from the POD

Still looking good after 3 years!

There's lots of room for me, equipment, and the 14 inch, as this pic shows

More importantly, the POD has more usable space than the significantly larger runoff shed.  With the 14 inch in there on its tripod, as you can see, it's very spacious!