I have this dream of a backyard observatory but I know it isn’t very realistic. Yet I let myself get excited earlier this week about a new possibility, and my COVID cabin fever let it go too far.
When some restrictions lift, we are hoping to get somebody in for a small backyard renovation project (landscaping, fence repair) and I was wondering if I could tack on an option to have a better set up for observing at home. I had a small epiphany that I thought gave me much more flexibility in how it could work and, as I said, I got excited temporarily. And then reality crashed in.
My current observing locations are limited
I’m in Nepean (a suburb of Ottawa) and it is not exactly a dark-sky option. My only spot for observing is the backyard which is close to houses, both front and back, which gives me a view to the South. I can see a bit to the SW, and high on the West and North above the neighbours. Nothing to the East as my house blocks that completely. Plus there are often house lights on in the neighbours’ places. In short, it is what it is and it’s the only usable site where I have regular and easy access.
My initial set up time was one of the major factors in choosing the scope I did — a NexStar 8SE, go-to mount in alt-az mode. No EQ, no counterweights to fiddle with, nada. For physical set up, I can be up and running in about 10 minutes. The problem is that those 10 minutes are after I get all my gear to the spot where I’m going to observe.
For RASC star parties, I load the car (10-15 minutes), drive to the site (45 minutes), and then I can set up while I am unloading. I then observe for at least 3 hours, it’s a big event, I’m the organizer, yada yada yada. It’s worth the effort. It’s not great “observing” for the night, you mostly show whatever planet is available to people, repeatedly, and then maybe show a few clusters, etc. Then I pack up (10-15 minutes), drive home (45 minutes), and take everything out of the car and into the garage or house (10-15 minutes). It’s not a light outing. Adding in my RASC duties onsite, it can be 90 minutes from the time I leave my house to the time I am viewing, and 75 minutes from ending to having everything unloaded again at home. Good thing it is only once a month.
For personal observing, I could drag my gear to some darker locations like the Fred Lossing Observatory in Almonte or the AstroPontiac site in Luskville, but that would be similar to the star party outing, except the driving part takes an hour or more to get there. I wouldn’t have star party duties, but I would have to drive into the site, figure out where to set up, a few extra admin steps. Again, about 75-90 minutes from deciding to “go” to viewing.
When we go to the in-laws’ cottage, I usually drag my scope along because it is a dark site, there are a bunch of people to show stuff to in the sky who appreciate the views, and I can observe for a couple of nights potentially. It’s worth the extra effort. But I confess, even then, lugging everything down to the car by myself and then back again at the end of the night is a lot of work.
RASC parties are about once a month, I might throw in FLO or AstroPontiac every other month, and a couple of times a year at the cottage. It’s about all I can handle, at least until I retire.
So observing at home is the next-best option. To be honest, though, the issue isn’t necessarily set-up time so much as the set-up time in relation to the viewing time. If I can view for a long-time then set-up times are worth it; if I can’t, that set-up time over-shadows my experience.
Set-up time at home
When I go out to those other sites, sure, there is a long lag time between the “go” point and actual observing, but the viewing is better in darker skies and I make it worth it — 2, 3, even 4 hours of observing. Some retired people in the club will go out on a Wednesday night when it’s clear and observe for 5 or 6 hours, including some imaging, because they don’t have to get up early the next day. I don’t usually have that luxury. But astronomy is a fair weather hobby — you need to seize the opportunity when a clear night sky appears.
Right now, in order to set up, I have to lug everything from my garage to the backyard and leave the garage door open while I do it. Which doesn’t excite me when I lost $3K worth of scope equipment last year when I accidentally left it open and unattended one night. But even if I address that risk by moving everything through the house, it is still a 20-30 minute job to get set up. At the end of the night, I frequently just move everything into the family room so I can get closed up fast (basic take-down) and worry about putting everything away later (detailed take-down). Of course, that also means it is a giant eyesore in the family room next to the breakfast table with everything in everyone’s way until I get to it. And if I have a chance at viewing the next night, I frequently leave it in place for a day or two to cut the second outing’s time.
I have to lug my scope, mount, tripod, couple of cases of equipment, observing chair (I usually don’t even bother), small table (often don’t bother), etc. I also have to find my phone, grab a camera adapter, go to the living room to get my power supply for the scope. It’s a whack of gear to move and all of it takes time. Thankfully, I don’t do any advanced imaging that requires a laptop, cabling, webcam, power, heat shields, table, chair, etc. I keep everything in a cupboard in the garage, but if the car is in there, it is hard to get in and out of the cupboard easily. I usually just back it out, which means I also have to pull it back in later. Obviously not a big issue, just one more step.
Let’s be generous and call it 10 minutes to lug everything and 10 minutes to set up. 20 minutes from the go decision to observing the sky, if I did it every night and had an efficient process. Plus another 20 minutes to put everything back. For me, that 40 minutes is only worth it if I can observe for at least 40 minutes and more likely 60-90. If it is something “quick”, it really isn’t worth my time. I’ve toyed with buying a backpack scope, something I could add an EP or two to and be able to observe in 60 seconds. But it’s not what I want to use. I want to use my real scope. Unfortunately, I am frequently not “free” until about 8:00 p.m. at night unless I make a special effort to be done earlier, and in the summer months, viewing doesn’t work until after 9:00 p.m. anyway. I can manage a couple of hours of observing on a good night, but most nights it would be way less than that with other things that fill my day. Exciting things like laundry, for example.
Jacob has a small scope and some accessories too if he wants to set up as well and he can’t stay up very late on a weeknight so that’s not usually worth it for him. I can use it myself, but that doesn’t change the calculation much. One less box to move than using my larger scope. It is a big difference in the amount of space it takes up in a car, but not in set-up time.
The attraction of an observatory
I’m a visual observer, mainly, not an imager and so my main interest in set up is actually not in an observatory. I would much rather have an open-air, non-claustrophobic set-up. A cement pad would be nice, sure. But walls and a dome? Not really. Almost every observatory I have ever been in seems “small” or “tight”. This is usually a function of both cost or available space to the builder. Two things that are at a premium in just about any build. For me, the two main attractions to having an observatory would be blocking light pollution and set-up time.
Starting with the light pollution, if you have one of those classic domes that you see on big telescopes in TV shows and movies, you can open a portal wide enough for the scope to look through while blocking all the surrounding ambient light. That is huge in light-polluted locales like a suburb. It doesn’t give you a dark sky, but it really helps.
Setup time though, as you can see from above, would be huge for me. My scope would be permanently set up and ready to go. I could flip a switch, put in an EP, run the alignment, and I could be observing the skies within 5 minutes. No lugging equipment everywhere.
The variables for building
I mentioned two variables above for why an observatory is attractive, but actually building one involves five main variables, in my view. I’ve read a lot online, and many of the views of experts add a host of other considerations about remote viewing, access to the building, materials, layout inside, etc., but those are really secondary considerations.
To me, the big factors are location as a proxy for functionality, size, cost, build options, and the appearance.
For context, I should mention that my backyard is a rectangular shape, running north/south. As I mentioned above, my house is on the east side blocking all views in that direction; there are houses to the north and west that block low horizons in those directions (particularly to the west); and I have a relatively clear view to the south with obstruction at the horizon. And, of course, I can see above me. We have a deck at the north end that occupies the whole width of the backyard, and steps in the middle of the deck down to the yard on the south end. The deck is about 20′ across the end of the yard by 16′ into the yard; the grassy area itself is about 20′ wide x 30′. Not huge, but not dinky either.
For location and functionality, the closer I get to the south, the more problem I have with the fence line for viewing low on the horizon but the more I can see to the north. Equally, the closer I get to the back fence to the west, the less I can see above the houses behind me. The so-called perfect location for an observatory would be to avoid all of this and put it on top of the house. Not happening. Past that, the next-best option would be close to the middle of the yard lengthwise (north and south) and right against the house. This would maximize views for north, south and west. The problem? That totally screws up the backyard for any other use. So that’s out.
When I set up my scope for a night, I usually set up on the deck itself. It raises me up a bit which helps with my views to the west. But because of the location of a BBQ, I’m in the middle of the yard width-wise (east/west). It works okay, although we added a gazebo on the deck, and its roof does obstruct some things. If I want more northerly views, I can set up on the lawn. Usually if I set up there, I do so in the general middle of the yard in case I can see “something” to the east past my house. Neither of those are options for me for an observatory though. One would be right in the way on the deck or getting to the stairs, and the other would eat up even more of the yard. I’d love an observing pad at either location, but that doesn’t work very well either. I either use a pier there and totally mess up things, or I need one big enough to have my wide tripod setup and walk around for observing, potentially stepping off it and twisting an ankles. We could lower it to lawn height to avoid such trips or ankle-twisting, but it still eats up valuable yard space, which my wife wants to conserve for our son to play in.
By the process of elimination, there is one area in the yard that I can use, which is about a 6’x6′ area next to the deck against the back fence. I’ve ignored it in previous considerations because it is too low for the west views. Equally, if I wanted to try going with a pre-fab model, the most popular ones (SkySheds) are minimum 8’x8′. I don’t have enough room, even if I liked them (which I don’t — doors are too small to get in and I find them cramped). However, my small epiphany was two-fold. First, I realized that I could raise that location off the ground and make it deck height, which would help with north, some east, and a little bit west. Not awesome but doable. Planets nearing the horizon would be lost but if they were up anywhere south in the night, I could grab them. I have wanted to check out Venus the last few months but it’s a 10-minute viewing to see it and 40 minutes to set up. Pass. If the Ottawa Valley Astronomy Friends had been able to set up in the parking lot at Chapters in Kanata, I would have driven out there one night with my family. It will likely be gone by the time I get around to setting up again, but I digress. It is a huge compromise on functionality, but it is the only space available to me, and it is at least usable.
I had always discounted this as even an option as 6’x6′ is pretty tight with my set up. The tripod sticks out pretty far, you have to walk around the legs, etc. If you had a second person wanting to look, it would be way too crowded. And a strong likelihood of kicking the legs, throwing off alignment. Raising it up to the deck wouldn’t help with that, still too small a space. Until I had the second part of the epiphany.
If I had a permanent spot, I could put in a pier. And with a pier, there would be no tripod legs. Nothing to trip over. In short, A MUCH SMALLER FOOTPRINT. And easily doable in a 6’x6′ space with vertical walls (no domes). Now we’re talking.
Enter the other variables
So, what would I need someone else to do? Well, I need them to extend my deck into that space. And pour the concrete pier. We’re hoping to have some landscaping work done, so if we bundled it somehow with some fence repair, maybe I could get the incremental cost down to about $1500? It’s a REALLY small space, but it still is going to require 2 new post holes, inspection, and a concrete pier. But after that, I could potentially do the rest?
If I went for something that was 6’x6′, and about 6′ tall, a nice little cube, it’s probably too big. It would seem large in proportion to the deck and block the view from the gazebo and family room window somewhat. Well, frak. Okay, I can’t go full-size custom observatory. That would be beyond my DIY capabilities anyway. I’d have to pay someone to do that and the cost would sky-rocket.
But I’ve seen some other ones that are “roll-away” observatories. Not roll-off roofs or domes, but actually the door opens and you roll the whole structure away. Basically, it looks like a telephone booth. But when you open the door, instead of finding a phone, there’s a telescope. And instead of stepping “into” the booth, the booth part is on wheels and you roll it out of the way so all you’re left with is a telescope on a pier.
I’ve seen some other designs called “motel-o-scopes” that look a lot like a very large birdhouse. Or a gigantic mailbox. In that design though, there is a supporting “table” that is permanent and wouldn’t work in my footprint.
But the pier and roll-away phone booth seemed like a doable/viable option. If I break it down into smaller pieces after someone else builds the deck and pours the pier, I would have digestible chunks that I could do myself:
- Attach a plate to the top of the pier — some rods go in when you build the pier, you attach a plate that you can buy commercially using some standard nuts to level it;
- Attach the mount from the tripod to the pier — easy peasy;
- Build a frame for the phone booth — relatively easy;
- Add some siding — wood siding is easy, not sure how to weather-proof it, but there are options;
- Add a roof — a bit more challenging for me, but it’s small enough, might find something commercial to attach but can be built and shingled;
- Add some interior insulation perhaps, sun-shielding if necessary, smooth panels — easy enough;
- Add a door — custom size one out of plywood or something like a barn door design, or scale it up to fit a standard size narrow door, doable;
- Add some wheels — this seems the most challenging to me as I’ve never done much with wheels but if I’m buying commercial options, not trying to DIY in tracks or anything, should be workable, might have to pay a bit more for easy over functional;
- Build an adjustable floor to go around the pier and stop any critters or anything from getting inside from underneath — designs already exist with hinges, steel wool, and small locks; and,
- Add a hasp to the outside.
I could commit to this. It would challenge me. My father or my brother Don? They could build it in an afternoon. Me? Probably a week, once I have everything worked out.
It almost sounded like a plan. But it isn’t. Because there are problems I can’t solve.
If I make it small enough, it looks like a giant electrical box. Which is ugly. You can try and pretty it up, but it the end, it looks like a box. Because it is.
If you make it a bit larger, then you can make it look like a small shed or house, it is prettier but it also starts to look imposing next to the deck and blocks some of the view from the family room window. Or as most people think of it, “Hey, you built an outhouse in full view of your yard.”
Plus, not for nothing, I can’t do that myself. I would need to pay someone else to do it, and the cost goes up considerably. Too high a cost for suburban viewing and a location in the backyard that is already a huge compromise on functionality.
So I got excited about an option that works for functionality/location and size, but not for cost, build options, or quality. Well, frak.
So what’s my backup option?
The two backup options I have are relatively separate. First, I could pour a cement pad somewhere. But again, I’m back to screwing up the backyard if I make it big enough to use with a large tripod. The pier can have a small footprint design but a full tripod can’t. So I guess I’ll use the lawn or the deck still. It works, it’s fine.
Secondly, I could put some sort of shed in the backyard. I looked at several options, including ones that would allow me to move my tripod in and out without having to break it down. In an ideal world, I could even leave my scope in it, even though it isn’t recommended to move your mount with the scope attached. I’d have to be careful while doing it, but it could be done. Some people have bought commercial systems where it is set up on a cart and you wheel the whole thing out. But that adds too much cost and instability for what you get, in my opinion. And doesn’t really make much sense with my set-up.
Unfortunately, the more I think about it though, the less comfortable I am with putting my scope and accessories in the shed. It wouldn’t be fully insured without expensive extra riders, the deductibles are too high, and I don’t want to deal with losing any of the stuff anyway. I was willing to adjust if I could build it in with a small pier and padlock the crap out of it without it looking inviting to someone.
Equally, I have the same space limitations for a shed. If it is big enough to house things while put together (like my scope), than it is too big, ugly and/or takes up too much space.
I guess I can forget about an observatory. I guess it is kind of the classic cliché…you can have it cheap, nice, or good. Pick two. Or in my case, one. Same for the shed. Sigh.
I really have to stop thinking about this and just accept the limitation. I get excited too much and then the resulting crash is too hard.