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A Backyard Observatory For Under $500?


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A Backyard Observatory For Under $500?

 

 

Only five years ago I had what many of us dream of.  A 10’x12’ Roll-Off roof dedicated observatory with two permanent piers strong enough to carry the weight of a car, on five acres of Arizona desert more than 40 miles from the first city light.

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Then it happens.  A family emergency that requires a move back into town to be closer to doctors and a hospital.  Everything works out fine on the medical front, but moving back out of town is simply not possible. A hideaway dedicated to my obsession with astrophotography simply was no longer possible.

We leased a new home as close to the eastern edge of town (Tucson) as possible.  From my backyard I would have unrestricted views of the skies from north to south of the eastern skies.  But a problem still existed.  I had reached a point in life (age) that restricted me to a system that I could carry outside each time I wanted to have a night of astrophotography.  At best, I was limited to a small scope that would not overload an AVX sized mount that I could hump out to the backyard as needed.

While being spoiled by the ability to image whenever desired was was painful to lose, carrying everything I needed to the backyard was painful too.

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The CGX being easily portable were not applicable to a 70’s aged former motorcycle racer whose bones barely meshed correctly.  Building a permanent structure was not feasible because I was in a leased home.  My only solution was a temporary structure that would allow me to leave my rig outside, at least the major heavy part.

Back in my days as a Quality/Reliability Engineer, we had a motto by which we lived; “Good, cheap, easy… pick any two”.  For this project I chose cheap and easy.  I would keep my computer, cameras, and accessories in my den when not in use, and the mount and telescope could stay, semi-permanently situated outside.  The search began.  Who in the world makes a portable or temporary structure large enough to provide security for a 10” f/4 newtonian riding on a Celestron CGX mount?  I considered a plastic yard shed; expensive, major engineering for a removable roof, and an HOA that didn’t allow anything so “permanent”.  There were manufacturers of wooden sheds that would modify a roof for me; very expensive, and even more permanent looking.

I tried for a couple of months hauling my stuff to the backyard but I was afraid that the Tylenol would fry my liver.   Besides, it took forever to get everything set up to image to the extent that I didn’t feel like imaging.  It began to seem a lot like work.  I considered downsizing but decided that if I couldn’t keep my current setup it might be time to find another hobby.  I definitely didn’t like that idea.

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One afternoon I was engaged in one of my favorite pastimes, surfing Amazon.com.  I was looking at plastic garden sheds; I hadn’t totally given up on that idea.  When I came across a wide selection of steel framed plastic sheet sheds that were temporary, cheap, and easy to assemble.  The only problem I could see was that they were designed to be anchored to the ground.  The solution would be to have the whole structure move off the telescope.  That didn’t seem too difficult, I simply needed to fabricate a solid structure to attach the shed to that could simply slide off the telescope when it was in use.

My current backyard is good old Arizona dirt with some large gravel tossed in, and little critters that scurry around in the dark like scorpions abound.   A subfloor seemed a good solution to the uneven rough ground, but I knew the tripod would bounce like a tractor as I moved around the floor.  The solution was simple.  I marked where the legs would be and cut holes in the floor.  I placed concrete pavers in the holes so the tripod would be solid to the ground and insulated from movement on the floor.

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I am what is known as an Engineer on the Run.  That means that I start building things and modify as needed during construction.  I started by ordering a 6’x8’ shed ($146 delivered) which was plenty big enough to shelter my rig and assembled it in the backyard.  Of course, the instructions that said “Easy Assembly” were relative to the number of friends you can suck into an “easy” job.  Since the shed is designed to anchor to the ground it was not moveable.  I had to find a way to anchor the shed to a base that was strong enough to hold its shape while moving on and off the telescope site.

2”x 6” seemed adequate, so I constructed a “U” shaped frame and anchored the shed to the frame.  One end had to be left open to allow the shed to move without hitting the telescope.  I picked up some really cheap rollers at ACE Hardware and bolted them to the underside of the frame.  Obviously they would not roll on the dirt so I extended the subfloor by attaching a couple of 2”x6” runners out the back.  I now had a permanent structure for my mount with a moveable roof that would roll on and off.

Shortly after completing the structure I was in the house strutting my engineering expertise when one of my neighbors knocked on my door.  He expressed concern that, although the wind was only about 10mph, my shed seemed to be flying around the yard.  Fortunately no real damage was done.  I placed the shed back in place and attached turn-buckles at each corner to anchor the shed.  Since that time it has weathered the Arizona monsoon season without a hitch.

  You may notice a change in the telescope.  I started with an Orion 10” F/3.9 and later acquired the StarWatcher Quattro 250P.  The total cost for the project that included the shed, subfloor, and various hardware came to about $300.00.  A great investment!

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Patrick Stevenson (Gork)

Tucson, Arizona

Have been DSO for years and recently started Planetary

Retired from Steward Observatory.  Wrote two or three articles about making the “big” mirrors entitled “My Other Telescope is an 8.4 Meter”

Current setup:

SkyWatcher Quattro 250P (10”)

Celestron CGX mount

Canon T3i Imaging Camera

ZWOASI120MM Guide Camera

StarSense

BackyardEOS

PixInsight

CC2020 PhotoShop

 


  • Bratman2, JMP, jstrandberg and 32 others like this


24 Comments

Thanks, havasman.  We had a saying back in Navy days, "Why were there 102 heroes at the Alamo?  Because there was no backdoor!"  I was kind of in that scenario.  I couldn't seem to find a backdoor until I happened to see a lawnmower in one of those little "sheds".  I figured that even if it didn't work I was only losing a couple of hundred bucks.  Heck, I do that all the time without even trying!

    • JMP, ShaulaB, jgreif and 1 other like this

Brilliant!  If my house wasn't located on a big hill I would do something like this.

Thanks for sharing. Something to ponder about. 

    • OrionNebula32 likes this

"Of course, the instructions that said “Easy Assembly” were relative to the number of friends you can suck into an “easy” job."

 

LOL, isn't that always the case. Thanks for the review, very interesting and something I'll look into as well. Getting sick of setting up and breaking down every time I want to observe/image.

When I hit 70 it was no longer difficult, it was impossible!  Now I spend at least two nights per week, weather permitting, under the stars.

    • SpaceConqueror3, Mattalan777 and mikeykokomo like this

Wonderful project!

 

Unfortunately if I do that where I live, it will be well cleared away when I wake up in the morning. :)

Patrick, what brand is the shelter you purchased?

In software development, we called it the "iron triangle", with the sides marked Cost, Quality/Features and Schedule. The sayiing was, the area of the triangle would remain the same, so pick the two you want prioritized, and the third will shrink/stretch in the unfavorable direction, LOL. You want more features? Great, double the budget or give us more time, and you got it! You want it faster? Ok, then give me more people (money) or reduce the feature set (quality). LOL.

 

Thanks for this article. I don't need a backyard observatory, but I would like to keep my gear stored in the back yard for quick and easy set up. One of these might do the trick, although as Mrcloc said, there is the risk of theft, so I might need a lockable shed after all. :-(

 

Regards,

Paul

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mikeykokomo
Nov 25 2020 04:05 PM

Congratulations. A great inspiration to those low budget readers, on how to reduce setup from 45 - 90 minutes to 15 minutes. However living in tornado alley, a tent won't suit my regional needs. Your example is however suitable for the vast majority of members on a budget living in a single family home.

I personally use two trash barrels (see image linked) https://www.flickr.c...157717045670117

 

Toward the security concern, a motion sensor triggering a barking dog may discourage most curious or ill-willed intruders. 

 

Thanks for sharing, and clear skies.

Ashmeelk,  slap me for not getting back to you sooner for your question.  I actually bought it from amazon.com

Pat

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condensermike
Nov 26 2020 12:00 AM

Nice set up with a very detailed write up! Thanks!

Thanks, I enjoyed your journey!

Any concerns about leaving the scope in the shelter during the heat of the day in June?

 

How about the humidity in August--if Tucson gets a real monsoon next year?

In my past lives I crewed on Navy aircraft, maintained huge telescopes, drove race cars, etc. etc.  all of which sat out in the weather for extended periods.  Temperatures were 30 below to 140 above.  They all worked as expected so I wasn't concerned with the heat, although I did take my computer and cameras indoors when not in use.  I just went through a mild monsoon with no issues but then I'm outside every time you can see a star.  My situation is one of those "no choice" deals.  Given a choice, I'd secure everything from the elements.  I just can't do that now.  I'm 73 and disabled, so it's kind of one way or no way.

    • Lazaroff likes this

Thanks for your answer. I'm an Arizona desert-dweller, too, and I've sometimes wondered about storing my home-made eight-inch dob outdoors so I could use it more often. I had little trouble picking it up and moving it around when I was in my twenties, but like everything else it's gotten much heavier over the decades since. (No gravitational constant in my universe.) I've considered a dedicated shed in the back yard, but the issues of heat and humidity have been a concern. That's why I asked. 

I am 73 and disabled so the CGX and 10" are still a burden because of all the stuff that goes along with them.  I am downsizing to an AVX and either an 80 or 102mm refractor.  That cuts about 75lbs off the rig.  I still don't plan on humping my gear around, but with the lighter stuff I might even go out further in the desert now and then.  A few years ago we moved from Tucson to Benson (40 miles east of Tucson) where I built my permanent observatory.  My wife got ill and needed a kidney transplant so everything went and we moved into an apartment by the hospital.  She's doing pretty well now so we are now on the extreme east side of Tucson.  We are leasing so I needed something not so permanent (see article on CN front page, "An Observatory for under $500".  That's my current rig.

Pat

    • Lazaroff likes this

Thanks. I read your interesting article. I wish you and your wife the very best.

could you add a few closeups of the frame and rollers? It looks like the answer to my prayers as I carry everything in and out plus I have been using make shift light shields made from PVC & tarps. When we get a storm I have to take them down as store them in a shed. I will be making a set up like yours soon.

I will take some close ups for you tomorrow.  If you decide to go this way you want to go to the factory web site and order from there (get the heavy duty plastic).

Pat

What brand do you have. It was not mentioned and Amazon only has 1 brand helterlogic. Is that the same brand?

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MoonKittyAZ
Dec 02 2020 12:28 PM

Patrick, I just started my astrophotography journey in earnest in 2019. I live and work in Gila Bend, AZ, which is also where I do my astrophotography. I'm hoping to hook up with an astronomy group here in AZ at some point. I've been looking but the Google has failed me. Are you aware of any groups here in AZ?

 

Thanks!

 

V/R

Brian Baxter

Very nice work, Pat!  Any idea how much wind your shed can handle?  I'm a former Tucsonan who now lives in West LA.  The Santa Ana winds can be intense on my roof deck.

 

Thanks,

Andre

Patrick, I just started my astrophotography journey in earnest in 2019. I live and work in Gila Bend, AZ, which is also where I do my astrophotography. I'm hoping to hook up with an astronomy group here in AZ at some point. I've been looking but the Google has failed me. Are you aware of any groups here in AZ?

 

Thanks!

 

V/R

Brian Baxter

Try Night Sky network. NASA sponsored page that list many astro clubs.

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rbtparrish55
Dec 02 2020 07:59 PM

Living in Michigan, not that far away from Lake Michigan, we can experience large amounts of Lake Effect snow. I wonder how well such a setup would fair. Getting older, I too struggle with moving equipment in and out. Not to mention the extra time needed to properly accomplish the same.



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