Your home observatory (part 1)

Posted by Michael Bakich
on Monday, April 23, 2007

One of the best things I've done in amateur astronomy is to construct a small observatory in the backyard of a former house. It's not that hard to do, and for this and the next six blogs, I'll outline how you can build your own observatory.

When I began to think about what I wanted in an observatory, convenience ranked high on the list. I wanted to be able to step out into my yard and, with little preparation, observe. One night after I finished construction, I timed myself from the thought "I want to observe," to actually observing. From a seated position at my computer, it took me 3 minutes to be at the eyepiece. On most nights, I could physically observe before my eyes dark adapted.

Because the telescope remained outdoors, it was already at the right temperature. Achieving thermal equilibrium — bringing your telescope to ambient temperature — is the longest part of the process that leads to serious observing. Your telescope reaching correct temperature takes a lot longer than setting up your equipment.

Within the observatory, my telescope also remained polar-aligned. If your scope has an alt-azimuth go-to mount, you don't have to worry about this. If, on the other hand, you use an equatorial mount (for photography), accurate polar alignment is crucial.

For me, however, the best part was not lugging a tube, mount, counterweights, or accessories anywhere. Also, all that "stuff," which I normally would store in the house, safely resided in the observatory.

An astrophotographer friend once told me his setup, on average, took 3 hours from start to the point of imaging. "I spent the 3 hours lugging out the gear, setting up, and doing a rough alignment. I followed that by 30 to 60 minutes of more accurate drift-aligning. At that point I would begin setting up the computer and CCD camera. By then, the scope had reached or was close to thermal equilibrium. I checked and adjusted the scope's collimation, and then I finally could get to work."

That's not how I want to spend my observing time. If you think like I do, stay tuned. In the coming weeks, I will list some of the considerations involved in constructing an observatory.

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