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Refining You Home Observing Site
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Refining Your Home Observation Site:
Why Do It-Where Do It-How It's Done
Who Observes at Home?
Between an early 2007 CN forum poll and checks with the local amateur observers, I estimate that nearly 3ž4 of amateur observers use their home as their primary observing site. What was surprising to me from the poll was the regularity of home observing. According to the poll, if you put all home area observers in a group, they observe quite regularly-anywhere from a dozen to a hundred times a year. The median group was 25 to 50 times per year. In comparison, club observing sites and other private yards (a place an observer visits-not his/her own property) comprise the next most popular type of observing sites, but they were a fraction of the more prolific and regularly used home sites. Other types of observing sites were considered in the poll but were much less prevalent. The results agreed with my personal knowledge of friends' observing habits-most people observe from their home.
What Is the Typical Home Observing Site?
Whether one looks at poll comments or checks with local amateur club members, most home sites are unimproved in this sense: most observers have a regular place they typically mount their equipment to get their best views without a lot of light interference but with some nearby conveniences (bathroom, food, bed, etc.). The typical area does not have any special added features or refinements.
Why Improve a Home Observing Site?
Being creatures of habit, amateur astronomers seem to keep using our home observing sites-usually longer than expected and without many changes. My wife and I were the same until we stood back and examined our rate of usage, which was 1-2 times per month for nearly every month of the year. Each time we observed, we used our observing area from 4-6 hours. This rate of usage led us to a decision process and some action to make improvements. Our first step was to make a couple of slightly improved pads-one on each side of our house (one facing north and the other facing south). A short time later we went through a more serious planning effort and constructed a pad that was coupled to an observing storage shed. Our observing frequency quickly increased because of the increased convenience, the improvements in light baffling, and the ease of set-up/take-down. In view of the large fraction of unimproved home observing sites, this article is for those readers that might also want to consider improving their areas. If you are like us, you may find that some simple steps in the near term will yield more convenient and pleasurable observing.
A well planned and executed set of improvements can also benefit your property-providing an attractive area that can be used for much more than night sky observing. The overall costs vary from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars, depending on the set of improvements. The scope of this kind of project depends on your requirements and what improvements you deem most necessary. The good news is that a well thought out set of improvements is achievable in terms of cost and effort. Our observing pad and storage cost about $3000 and took a year to complete. Our rate of usage is now over a couple hundred hours per year-not including uses outside astronomy, which also increased dramatically. The investment has been well worth the cost and effort. Even our first less complicated improvements, however, were very useful, and cost just a few hundred dollars-less than one premium eyepiece.
The Article's Approach.
Sections of the article essentially repeat the thinking and action process we went through to improve our site in Crozet, Virginia. Our suggestions are not the only way to do things. My wife and I brought different issues to the table and considered them. Some of them may be pertinent to you; some may not. But we can provide some simple guidance and thoughts about the process, the costs, and the results. Where possible, I will anchor the process with comments relative to our improved observing area as well as the costs and work associated with it. With your home site in mind, we invite you to evaluate your own home site. Many readers may have ideas of your own, please let us know and the rest of the community, which is full of home observers just like you and me.
In each section, the things to think about or decide are in normal text. Text in italics includes thoughts and applications peculiar to us so you can see an immediate example after certain steps of the improvement process.
WHAT ARE YOUR REQUIREMENTS?
The first step is to list your overall requirements for an observing period. What things are most or least important for your astronomical observing? This general list helps a person articulate their overall direction about what they want for a working observing area. Great detail is not necessary-just a general list of high points. We recommend planning and executing improvements based on your requirements and how you think they may change over the next few years. Even if you do not think your observing requirements will change, extending your list by expanding the things you currently enjoy the most will serve to provide some ideas about how to improve or extend your home observing site.
What we listed for our personal requirements:
- We wanted to reasonably baffle any light interference during observing periods (typically from an hour after dusk to midnight) for the next several years.
- The observing area had to be close to bathrooms, power, and light when we wanted it. When we observe at home, we want it to be as easy as possible and with modern conveniences.
- While great sky view is an ideal goal (horizon to horizon in all four compass directions), we wanted a section of sky that would permit us to see Polaris and a wedge of sky that would permit us to observe as much of the sky as possible during a full year. (I will talk about why this is important later.) In other words, we wanted to have the best conditions of home observing we could but with a practical approach: do the very best with the most usable part of the sky we had.
- With these first 3 things in view, we would favor areas that would give us the largest sky at any given time, but not at the expense of light interference or attempting to see within 25 degrees of the horizon-where atmospheric conditions prevents good observing during most occasions. This means we would gladly sacrifice seeing a little sky if we could baffle light interference better.
- We wanted to plan for as large an area as possible to accommodate small groups, more than one telescope, and space to move about. We already have friends with observatories and small areas or observing sheds-most of would not give us the elbow room or mobility that we desired. With this in view, we also wanted to avoid permanently fixed telescope mounting locations.
- We wanted our observing tools to be stored near our observing pad. Storage had to be easy to use in the dark and had to have available space for our set of tools. We estimated that we wanted enough room in the storage area to sit and enjoy reading our many references about the skies. And, if we wanted to take a rest break during observing, we wanted to be able to relax in the same space, so it had to be reasonably enclosed but adjacent to the observing area.
- During daylight hours, the observing pad area still had to be usable for other things. Single purpose usage of space was something we wanted to avoid, because it might lead us to solutions that would restrict other uses of our property and may also affect sale value if we ever moved.
- I had to be able to do the work. In terms of cost and time, I was willing to fork out a few thousand and have an extended work project for a year or so if the area was truly multi-purpose and would most likely be used regularly. I wanted to avoid a complicated process that demanded a lot of contractor help because cost would very quickly get out of hand.
- I wanted to have the smallest footprint possible with local ordinances, so my choices were to result in as few restrictions as possible but still be fully legal in terms of local code or neighborhood associations.
THE THINKING PROCESS (THE MOST IMPORTANT STEPS BEFORE YOU BUY or BUILD ANYTHING)
Part A. What is Your Typical Observing Period and What Tools Do You Use?
Every observer knows what tools he/she has but how things might change over time can take a little more thought. It is important to think about this since the array of telescopes and equipment determines a minimum size and sometimes shape of an observing area. Do you have one scope or do you have two or three? Do you typically like a table or chair nearby? Bottom line: list what equipment you expect to have laid out on a good observing night for the foreseeable future (five years). Add to that list any items your reasonably expect to add to your tool set during this same period. Keep the list handy and in front of you as you think about your typical observing period.
What kind of observing period is typical for you? What would you like to do? It makes quite a difference if you are a die-hard observer who stays up all night alone with a single telescope or if you typically have a short period of observation (a few hours) with a small group of people and several scopes. Do you socialize and snack or eat when you observe or are you a loner and hold your eye at the eyepiece the whole time? Do you set up in the dark or the light? Do you work a large tool set (Go-To scopes with power tanks, star cameras or astro-video, an array of EPs, etc.) and want lots of room or do you stay close and clustered to your favorite scope and a few select EPs? Are you physically limited or handicapped or do you expect visitors with physical limitations? All these things affect the concept of an observing period that you enjoy. With these things in mind, describe the observing period that you want and who is likely to be present but do it in terms of the next five years by including any changes in observing habits that you believe are reasonable.
Here is what we listed for the "Beard" observing period:
Our tool set typically involves putting up one medium Dobsonian that has a 12 foot circle of operation (12.5 inch f4.5 truss tube is about 6 feet high on it's platform). About 1ž2 the time, we want to put up two scopes (adding an 8 or 5 inch SCT). With one or two scopes set up, we usually lay out a small case with our finders, EPs, and related things; a second case with astro-video equipment; and a third case with supporting equipment. On the site, we almost always have two or three references (star charts, planispheres, and/or favorite books/guides), several lights, one power tank, extension cords/power strips, 3-4 chairs, and one or two small tables.
Our conceptual observing period was augmented to include guests, which we typically expected at the site up to 1ž2 of the time. In recognition of the likely size of the group (a maximum of 10), our sleep habits, age, and past observing periods, we arrived at our final model of an observing period for the next five years: 4-5 hours long (with set up and take down), arranged and organized to accommodate 10 people, and take place from dusk to 1 am (we rarely stay up after midnight). We also required artificial lighting during take set up/take-down periods, quick access to bathrooms (less than a minute away), and quick access to things hot or cold to eat or drink.
Last, we wanted an area such that arriving or departing quests would not disrupt participants' night vision or inadvertently trip over wires and scopes. In other words, the path to or from the observing area should not go through the middle of equipment that was in use.
We also evolved a mobile observing site as a subset. It will be briefly discussed at the end of this article. It uses some of the attributes of the home observation site. Many of the same planning steps are used
Part B. "Map" Your Home and Adjoining Property.
1. Introduction. This section must be done carefully because it is your reference for existing conditions in terms of topography (land, trees, buildings, and lights) that influence your available sky and the quality of that sky from the vantage point of your observing site. It is not a typical plat. Rather, you are going to record anything that affects your visual horizon (now or in the near future) or detracts from a dark sky. This is where you make note the sources of artificial light AND the sources of baffling (blocking) of light. When this is done for a couple of selected observing pad locations, then you estimate (which is all you can do) where things might get worse (more houses built closer, new street lights, a new road, etc.). I recommend this be done for two different locations in your yard. If you have a very small yard and it seems you only have one choice, then try to pick a second location in that small space, because appreciating the differences between two candidate locations will help you refine you final choice. The steps that follow will lead you through the recording process.
2. Recording Your Information and How to Measure Things. Nearly every amateur uses a planisphere to find major stars. Almost every planisphere has an oval or circle to represent the sky. Figure 1 (next page) shows an adaptation of a classic planisphere for recording your sky information. The edge of the oval is horizon. Its center is zenith or the line that extends vertically from your property. Cardinal directions are clearly marked (N, S, E, and W) on the edge or horizon. Of course, time and date does not matter for mapping boundaries of the sky and obstructions but compass directions are important for orientation. Inside the oval or horizon line I have drawn two concentric circles some distance apart. The distance between these lines on my "planisphere" is 25 degrees. Nearly any scale is OK but I suggest letting the distance between the concentric circles represent 25 degrees in elevation, which is the angular distance between the end of your thumb and the end of your little finger when your hand and arm are outstretched. Thus, measuring things is pretty easy for the level of precision that is needed to define available sky at a home observing site. Of course, everything you measure will be from the estimated horizon (or level) and up. If you have trouble determining what level or horizon is to start with, then use a simple bubble level to help you sight it as you record the available sky and what interferes with that sky. As it states on the figure, the objective is to stand on your proposed observing site and face every 45 degrees or so-recording significant sky obstructions and light sources that extend up to about 50 degrees in elevation (two or three "handwidths"). Of course, it is relatively easy extend the recording of any obstructions that reach higher angular elevations.
Figure 1 follows
3. Choosing Two Observing Points to Record Available Sky. Keeping in mind that the planisphere is your recording device, you want to identify things that produce light and things that baffle light. In this sense, every tree, building, street light, antenna, mountain, big bush, or children's playhouse can be defined by how much it blocks your view of the sky. It is these things you want to record with reasonable accuracy using your "outstretched hand measuring device". With this in view, you next step is to choose two different locations that you believe are your best observing locations on your property. Try to pick areas that you already know have a reasonable view of the sky AND are in agreement with your requirements for a future improved observing site with respect to power, light, and convenience. A couple things to remember that we have learned: do not be afraid to be relatively close to your house or in your driveway if conveniences are important to you. Light baffling can often be handled for these locations. If you have a choice, let one of your chosen observing locations be in part of your yard where your house or a neighbor's house actually becomes the light baffle for the most obvious and annoying light sources (these are typically cars and street lights). Also, don't worry about choosing a site near a rooftop-where you might be looking at objects directly over a rooftop. People say that rising heat from roofs can ruin your views but my experience suggests that the influence of a hot roof on your observing is not that obvious unless you have an incredibly large scope and you have perfect eyes. A much more dominant affect on your views comes from the temperature condition of your optics (making sure they are cooled down).
4. What Kind of Sky Area Is Best? In terms of compass directions, we have found that a north/south strip of sky is best in terms of viewing throughout a year period. In this light (no pun intended), having a stretch of sky from Polaris and as far South as you can go is nearly ideal. A nice wide band from East to West is nice but a narrow band is fine because earth's rotation and seasonal changes will eventually enable you to see nearly everything. Remember, if you run your outstretched hand and arm from North to South, you will "cutout" a 25 degree window in the sky, which is over an hour and a half of time in terms of apparent sky rotation for any star or object that is overhead or a bit toward the South. When you are close to Polaris, the same strip of sky covers even more time. If you look at figure 2, you can see example wedges of the sky with considerable east/west obstructions.
Figure 2 follows
As you can see from the notes on the figure, the whole idea is to make best use of the sky region that you can get. On the figure, the red area is about 25 degrees wide (east/west) and represents about an hour and a half viewing time. The additional green area extends the viewing time to about 2.5 hours and is about 50 degrees wide in the east/west direction. If you can get this wedge, it means you will be able to see nearly everything within a year period even if you cannot get close to the Eastern or Western horizons!! Many people think a restricted viewing area like this is not good, but not necessarily in the terms of viewing over a year period. In this view, getting a north/south strip of sky is better than an east/west strip. So, if you have a choice, go for a site that gives you the best choice possible but do not be dismayed if it is not "ideal". We are also not in favor of "moving mountains" to get the last 25-35 degrees near any horizon. In practical terms, it is usually not worth the effort because of the "amount" of atmosphere one must look through in order to see an object that is close to the horizon. Last, do not worry about singular sources of annoying light (a neighbor's bright security light or a single street light) since a few sources can usually be handled in a number of ways. If possible, avoid areas of light or sky glow that take up large areas of the sky. These are much harder to deal with. With this information in mind, select two observing locations in your yard that you believe will be best for you. For urban observers, do not be dismayed by nearby multi-story buildings-simply follow the same reasoning and choose as best as you can.
5. Actual Recording of Sky Information. Take your modified planisphere template with compass directions to the first location, orient it properly relative to compass directions, and use your hand measuring "tool" to estimate the sky that is blocked as you turn in a circle from the center of the observing location you have chosen. Do the same procedure for the second location. Check the information and refine it (if you need to) by repeating the same procedure at night ? at a time you would normally expect to be observing. Think about any changes that are affected by trees losing their leaves. Last (but not least), look at your results and think in terms of the most likely changes that will occur over the next five years. Think like a developer and a local county planner who are trying to find homes for a growing population. What new houses could be built, where, how high, and how much light will they contribute? Note or anticipate new roads, increased traffic, or street lights. If time permits, check astronomy light conditions that are already recorded for the region. Also check county planning documents for your immediate area for likely changes. Ask your county or town planning department official about whether you are in a growth area and try to get a general description of what that means for where you live. Using your best guess from any investigation you do, add any pertinent information to your planisphere in terms of worsening light pollution that you think might occur over the next five years. Last, if you want to make a regional check of dark conditions for your area, then check dark sky maps on the web for your area or check with local astronomy club members about this kind of information (they usually keep track of it). It usually provides average conditions of dark sky for your region and can confirm the directions from which most sky glow originates.
Figure 3 illustrates our first attempts at making observing pads immediately adjacent to our house. We conducted a more detailed planning process for a site that was removed from the house a little bit. We did this before we learned to map our sky-following the directions explained above. Figure 4 shows the site of our more detailed evaluation and the planisphere view of our primary site is shown in figure 5. I have shown some extra detail on the figures so you can see our thoughts about things that influenced available sky and light conditions. The figure notes show that we considered approaching car lights on nearby roads, nearby residential sources of light, a nearby "mountain", sky glow from two towns, and various other things that we thought might affect our decision and action plan. We also considered both summer and winter since light conditions changed when leaves were not on the trees to block house lights. We also observed at each location with scopes before going any further. We knew where sky glow was a factor and thereby avoided trying to get more sky in an area that was already compromised.
Figures 3 follows
Figure 4 (Primary Observing Site) and 5 ("Planisphere" for an Observing site) follow on the next 2 pages
Part C. Select Your Preferred Area and Layout a "Bird's Eye Sketch
Selecting your preferred area depends on your preference that is based on two things: the planisphere information AND where your tool set (observing equipment) is going to come from. For the young and vigorous, where your "stuff" comes from may not make a difference, but we have found that having easy access and a good route between the observing site and the location of the stored observing equipment is VERY important. If you believe this is somewhat important to you, then choose the site that has acceptable sky but also has easy access to your equipment. For a moment, you have to presume the stuff will come from the nearest door of your home or from a separate storage you will plan and build. With your selected area marked clearly, make a simple sketch of your property and adjoining properties/roads (see our example in figure 6, next page).
It is easiest to use a copy of your plat. If you do not have a copy, make a simple sketch or you can go to the local county/city office and use a small copy of a planning document for your area. You can make a site selection without this step but we have found the step useful because it reminds us of our definition of where things are around us that can affect sky conditions.
Part D. Decision Time for Storage and Observing Site Detail
1. Star Stuff Storage-Choices for What You WILL Own & Where It WILL Be Kept. Storing and set up/take down of your star stuff is nearly as important as your observing site. I received good advice when I was a brand new observer when a vendor told me that my favorite scope was the one I used the most-regardless of what I said. With this in mind, getting that scope and the related stuff set up and taken down is probably the most dominant factor that affects how much it is used. If it is a real pain to set things up or put the mess away, you will not use it unless conditions are really good. On the other hand, if the "star" storage is easy to use, a pleasure to use, and makes observing better, then the tools will get used a lot-even if seeing conditions are marginal. With this in mind, read onÉ.
a. What Star Stuff Will You Store? In Part A you constructed a present and near-term list of scopes and stuff that you expect to be using for the next five years. It is time to revisit that list and see if there is anything else you want to add or subtract. The second glance is worth the time because you have thought through and selected your observation site. Given your idea of reasonable money and the things you want to do with amateur astronomy during the next few years, make adjustments to your list. Why worry about it? If a person likes observing and intends to keep doing it, a scope or two invariably gets added to the pile of stuff. When guests come to observe, a lot of observers pull out their old scopes but keep close tabs on their newer and better one. The message I have is this: if you like observing, your tool set will expand and your old "stuff" will probably stay around. Assume this and you will size your storage better. So make appropriate notes on your original list and continue.
b. House storage. House storage is great if your chosen observing site is close to your house and you have available space. This is where communication among the house members becomes critical, because in the end, if you cannot protect your equipment properly and have it reasonably organized, then your "inside" home storage solution will probably not work well. From experience and observation, a couple decent scopes and stuff that goes with it will take a half of a normal bedroom. In addition, for room storage to work well, the room needs to be where you can get your equipment outside to the observing site without making 20 turns in the dark with your hands full. A closet is OK if you have a very limited tool set. Whatever you choose (if it is in the house), it will need to have easy access to the outside but still be bump proof and people proof when it is not in use. Parts of garages (that I observe are typically rarely filled with cars) work great IF you can delineate a protected space. I have seen many garages, so please don't mix mechanical, lawn, and children's toy areas with scopes unless you protect the scope area and have a way to get through the maze to the outside site. Don't put scope stuff where fumes from corrosive things (paints, solvents, fertilizers, etc.) abound. This may seem obvious; but sometimes the obvious escapes us.
c. Shed Storage. I make no "bones" about it-I really like and have built separate storage for our equipment. We outgrew our "inside" home solution in two years. However, there are some things to consider that are critical. Shed storage must be sealed to the outside to prevent various rodent do-do and nesting from encroaching on your favorite scope and star stuff. Second, small little sheds that you can buy are NOT suitable without modification because they will not usually take heavy use and they (being small and un-insulated) will expose your equipment to dramatic rapid changes in temperature every day. While you do not need to climate control (with active heating and cooling) your storage, you do want to reasonably thermally stabilize the storage. This means some insulation (even a little) is a really good idea. Third, entrance and exit paths to/from a shed MUST be able to give you the width and height of your widest and tallest equipment PLUS several inches-if you want to build some safety and ease of use into your storage. For instance, if you have a storage entrance that has a door that is
6 inches less than your height, I can almost guarantee that one evening either you or your scope or both will collide with the entrance. With these things in mind, sheds can vary greatly in size and type of construction. Some may be cute and have very attractive price tags, but they may not work in the dark with your expensive equipment. A homemade shed can possibly be connected to your house BUT local building ordinances usually won't tolerate something connected to your house without having a LOT to say about how it is built. Separated, specially designed storage with good entrance/exit features that is reasonably sized is usually the only solution to meet building code restrictions-unless money and complexity are not limiting factors in your planning.
d. Size & Type of Storage. Whether your storage is in the house or in a separate shed, try not to make the classic and often repeated mistake of planning to use something that barely fits your estimated tool set (current set and forecasted changes/additions). Guidelines are hard to give because people's astronomy equipment varies and what they think they need for the future varies even more. If it was me making the recommendations, this is what I would use as a suggested guide for minimum storage for a defined tool set:
i. One small SCT/Mak/Dob plus 3 cases of equipment-at least one big closet or 1/3 of a room or 6'x6' shed
ii. 2 small scopes plus equipment: about the same plus another 50% floor space
iii. 3 scopes (including one good size SCT or a Dob)-at least an 8'x10' area that has stud-height walls (a little less than 8 feet) and standard exit/entrance doors.
e. Combining Storage with Observing Site. This is a relatively popular solution and results in a roll-on/roll-off star shed. There are wonderful examples on the web of folks that have done this. If you are cramped for space, you only use one or two scopes, and you do not have many people observing with you, then this is a very viable solution. I examined many such designs but our requirements, our weather (often damp, some times hot, sometimes cold), and my local high density of critters/insects meant that I would have to have a perfectly sealed design that was big. For us, this solution did not work and was not attractive, unless the cost was much higher and we would only use the shed for one thing-astronomy with a very small group. However, for readers that want to pursue this solution, there are many examples available and some "posts" on the subject.
f. Local Ordinance Considerations. Most counties and towns have pretty elaborate building restrictions for anything connected to a house or above a certain size. Hence, for either option one usually needs a contractor, a change in plat, formal plans, etc. It is a great solution where money is not an issue, which means it is not a good solution for most people. However, the really good news is that most local codes and ordinances permit single-story sheds to be built or placed on your property if the square footage is reasonable. For my area, the local code limiting size for a shed is 150 square feet or less, which is a very generous sized room-slightly larger than 12'x12'. I have heard of areas where the size is 100 square feet, which is still a generous room (10'x10'). In almost all cases, the height is not restricted by codes as long as the shed is single story. Hence, you can have built or purchase or build yourself a shed that has decent height (to avoid endangering your cranium as you wander in and out in the dark) and plenty space to store stuff. Also, local ordinances that I am familiar with (please check yours to make sure) do not specify the type or manner of construction for a shed. (A "shed" means that you do not live in it-it is not your abode for overnight sleeping. The fact that you might use it during night hours for observing still means that it is a shed. This distinction is VERY important in regard to local ordinance limits.) This means if a person is just a little bit handy and can read a Lowes or Home Depot how-to book on garages or sheds, then something can be built that will not fall down AND will not upset your local code restrictions. Where the local codes ARE restrictive is with respect to the placement of the shed relative to your property boundaries. Set-backs (distances to boundaries and your home MUST be obeyed. It is typical to not be permitted to place a shed within several feet of a boundary, but check your local code restrictions for the particulars. Fees and drawing requirements for sheds are usually inexpensive and simple, respectively. I submitted a sketched shed location on a regular plat and the fee was $20 in 2005 for a small building that has no heat or electricity or water. For this type of project, an inspector comes out to check to make sure the location obeys the local set backs (minimum distances to boundaries) and checks after everything is done to make sure the building was put where it was approved to be placed. The inspector did not care if the building was concrete, steel, wood, or an odd looking dome. I have power/electric requirements, but I use an extension cord to get the power that I need to our star shed. I have bath/bed requirements, but they are handled by having the site near my home.
g. Neighborhood Association Restrictions. I aimed to have a home that did not have such constraints because I heard plenty of horror stories ?well before I was observing the stars. However, many people have to deal with a second set of rules from this kind of an association. As in the case for county or village code restrictions, one must find out what the rules are. I understand, however, that sheds that are decently built and do not look like a dump are usually acceptable up to a certain size. The good news is that an attractive shed that is multipurpose and set near an observing pad but not far from your house can actually be quite attractive. Hence, objections from picky neighbors (if they have a say in the matter) can be lessened. In any case, there is no short cut: you must find out what the limitations are before digging or building.
Our storage solution (see previous figure 4) was a home built shed. I priced, and priced, and priced sheds of various sizes and shapes. For us, by the time I found candidates with an entrance that was high and big enough, the price tag (with no insulation, small inoperable windows and no floor) was already outrageous and the construction was very light. I talked with some friends about building since I had never framed anything but could handle a hammer. I bought a Lowe's guide on garages, copied some basic details on wall construction, and set out to build the maximum sized shed the local county would consider a shed: 12 feet squared. However, I made it full height (using regular studs) and made a simple peaked roof that would permit the inside height to be about 12 feet in the center. Then my wife and I figured where things would go and designed internal storage. During a couple months prior to starting construction we found and purchased returned or slightly damaged windows at Lowe's (nearly all stores do this at one time or another). We bought a regular 6 foot French door for the only entrance/exit so we could actually sit in the door of the shed and observe or use the generous opening to ease getting things in and out. I kept construction simple and straight forward-copying stuff from my handy Lowe's guide when I needed it. The total cost was less than 8x8 prefab and built ten times better, but we will talk about building later.
2. The Observation Pad or Site.
a. The Range of Solutions. The range of solutions is quite wide but each solution has the same elements: size, shape, surface, and access. The location (in review of what we have already covered in the article) has already been chosen. Your sky limits and general light conditions have been recorded. You know and have listed your tool set (star stuff). You have chosen your type of storage. The question at hand becomes the type of observing pad or site you want to have-grass, concrete, wood deck, dirt, boundaries (if desired), elevation (ground level or raised), and decorative or practical touches that make you want to use it. The choices are endless and depend a lot on people's experience. I will admit up front that I have a bias toward certain things-a site that is reasonably level with the ground and a concrete construction. I try as much as possible to adhere to the KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid) principle. The reader might as well know this up front because I do not want to discourage other solutions, but I know what has worked for us and the pitfalls we found in other materials. If you already have a deck area or a patio (even a small one), then you may only have to make some adjustments. In any case, I will present some ideas (if you have not made any choices yet) so that you understand why my wife and I did what we did. Our approach and our ideas:
i. Why level with the ground? It means the least amount of work if leveling must done; it requires no railing so people don't fall off something; it means the surrounding yard becomes the overflow area with no steps. The pad does not have to be perfectly level since a little slant or slope keeps water moving nicely and blends better with the typical non-level yard. My recommendation: work as much as possible with the land slant that you have and minimize the digging. Putting small shims under a tripod leg or EQ platform or ground board foot is easy compared to striving for a perfectly level site. A few inches of slant or drop for every 8 feet is easily workable but still appears nearly level.
ii. Why concrete? Brick sweats (it really does!!) and dew loves to form on brick, which makes it slippery. Wood decks usually mean a raised area, which works IF the wood deck is very stiff and virtually solid (no big gaps). If raised, it must have railings and/or steps to the ground. The cost can be high. A wood deck solution gets real touchy if it flexes, vibrates, or sags with weight-these things give sensitive scopes (especially SCTs) a fit. It requires maintenance every other year or so. On the natural side, a grass site is pristine and romantic at times, but it gathers dew in a heartbeat or frost in the same time. If observing time is extended, grass gets very cold quickly-soaking cases and anything else that touches it. Bare ground is OK if there is no dust or loose dirt to contend with. Neither dirt nor grass can stand regular use in my neck of the woods without creating a mess. Remember the poll results: the average person uses the pad 25-50 times per year. In terms of longer term use, each of these solutions demands some upkeep and attention except for concrete. I am personally partial to doing the least amount of work and maintenance that I can. With all of this said, concrete was our choice. The good news about concrete is manifold. First, you don't have to be a rocket scientist or a builder to make forms and work concrete. Instructions are on every bag if you need guidance. Second, it is virtually maintenance free if you make it thick enough (thickness of a 2x4 or about 3.5 inches thick) and put rebar or iron rods in it to keep it from cracking. Third and last, it has attractive properties with respect to sitting telescopes on it. Property 1: Concrete heats slowly and cools slowly so evening observing is on a surface that is nearly always slightly warmer than air in the evening but resists rapid changes. In technical terms, it has thermal mass and, therefore, makes a relatively stable surface in terms of temperature-nearly always a few degrees above ambient. Hence, unsealed concrete rarely collects dew through most of a night and, if it does, the surface absorbs it, because concrete is somewhat porous. Property 2: it can be easily designed for any shape and type of surface. The surface can be made to your liking (smooth, brushed, etc.). I recommend a swept or brushed surface to avoid slipping and to keep tripods from moving easily. I also recommend natural concrete or, in other words, DO NOT put a sealer on it. (When you seal it, the slightest moisture will collect on the sealed surface, which is NOT what you want.)
b. Size and Location Considerations. With a shed or house storage in already chosen and your general site already selected, the size and exact location of the pad must be determined. This is where your list of stuff that you expect to use during an observing period must be consulted. The area does not have to be solid!! One can have several selected locations for scopes and build a small deck or slab for each. Several circles or multi-sided shapes can be used for this. Or, the area can be solid with enough area to set up everything you want. If you expect to have more than one scope in operation at the same time, I recommend thinking about locating and shaping the area so each observer can see the others, which makes communication and running between scopes the easiest (least hazardous). Figure 7 (next page) shows several pad concepts. Of course, when we are talking about one scope and one person, everything is much simpler. In all shapes, however, the location relative to your star stuff storage and the house (for conveniences) IS important. Keep this in mind. A little thought into how you orient your observing pad really helps when it is dark and duty calls (to gain water or get rid of it). Ultimately, as a rule of thumb, take your diameter of the physical movement for your telescope and add about 2 feet. This defines the outside border for the adjacent or next scope area or the nearest physical obstruction (table, brick wall, plant line, etc.). The extra 2 feet permits human passage and operator movement around the scope without running into the next scope. Depending on the number of scopes you want to set on the pad, plan a little leeway for entrance/exit to/from the observing area without getting in the way of an observer. If you add the dimensions up, you can get a rough idea for how big the whole observing area will be and how much ground area around the pad might get used also. Before digging and after you are pretty sure how you want your pad to look, it is wise to stand in the locations one clear night where scopes are likely to be placed. This can give you a sanity check about the sky that is available from reasonable points on the pad. Make sure key stars (like Polaris for us) can be seen.
c. The Concrete Pad-Our Arrangement. Figure 4 diagram 5 shows our final arrangement for shed storage and the adjacent telescope pad. These scanned photographs have notes for dimensions, why we did certain things, and details about access. Site preparation time is a lot longer than actually doing the concrete pouring/finishing. For our home, the larger part of the pad and access that was constructed of concrete was ordered and delivered via a concrete truck. We did the work to smooth surfaces. As a matter of reference, for pads that need over a cubic yard of concrete, the net cost for it to be delivered to your home on the eastern seaboard of the US in a ready-to-pour fashion is about the same as buying "ready mix" bags that you mix yourself. As a result, we had the largest part of our primary pad poured but relied on mixing it ourselves for the center "triangle" because we wanted to do it later and with a color. (The color triangle orients us or visitors to Polaris if clouds keep us from seeing our "guide" star.) If you have never done this sort of thing before, it is not hard to learn by doing some bags yourself in a smaller area. We divided our area into sections and used pressure-treated wood as the internal borders between sections. This means we did not move the forms that were inside the outer edge for most of the slab. Our slab is nearly level but has a bit of slope where needed to get rid of water. Since it is at ground level, mowing and setting up just off the slab are easily done. In short, this way of constructing a slab has proven itself to us. If you have never tried it, don't be afraid to try it. One can almost always find a friend with a little experience to assist in this process if it seems too complicated.
d. Our Previous Pads ? a not-bad solution (previous figure 3). If this all seems to much work and you have a concrete pad next to your home or you are willing to install one, figure 3 shows our north and south facing pads that we built first and still use under certain conditions. The reason I mention these again is that some people shy away from the most obvious and quickest solution (next their house) because they think the house will interfere or yield too much heat off the roof. For normal sized scopes (less than 12-14 inches), we have not noticed where home light or heat significantly deteriorates viewing. Furthermore, these types of pads use the house as a wonderful light baffle that the owner controls. Each of our next-to-house pads was placed to take advantage of southern or northern exposure; each location permitted viewing a reasonable segment of the sky. For a single scope and few people observing, this is very adequate. However, the number of scopes we use and the people that keep coming to observe required more dedicated storage and a larger area. Nevertheless, each of these pads is still very usable. With proper light baffling, they are good site design for a typical residential house-even in a dense housing area. If second story structures are less than 50 feet away, this kind of house-connected slab will still provide very reasonable sky viewing potential.
3. Light Baffling-Choices Focused on 3-5 Years Away
a. House as a Baffle. If you go back to your planisphere, you should be able to see your measurements for available sky. For any pads and shed storage near your home, the house (and sometimes the star shed) can act as a primary light baffle. There is some practical wisdom in using your own home as a light baffle because you control the light that comes through the windows. So, take advantage of it! One of our primary reasons for locating our latest pad on the north side of our home (see previous figure 4) is because it baffled car lights and any other light for a large wedge of southern compass directions. The same holds true for sheds, solid fences, etc. If any objects are located fairly close, the benefits for light baffling often far outweigh their blocking some of the sky. Our house and sheds baffle nearly 90 degrees of light sources while their "protrusion" into the sky was less than one hand width or about 25 degrees (see previous figure 6).
b. Natural Baffles. Most folks live in homes where the property was leveled by the developer/builder. Whether the land is level or not, using mounded earth or some terraced area or natural topography to assist in light baffling nearly always works. Compared to a lot of expenses, a load of dirt or earthen garden wall of some sort is relatively cheap-and reconstitutes the typical developer's approach to level every square foot of terrain. Consider an example. Let us say that you have 75 feet from your observing site to the neighbor's yard and lights. If your load of dirt gives you a two foot high and a 20 foot-long gently mounded area that is a little way from the boundary of your site AND you plant a row of fast growing evergreen trees or shrubs on top of it, then you will have a solid (with respect to light) barrier that reaches at least 6 feet in less than three years. It is virtually maintenance free; it can be trimmed to suit, and it provides shade in the late afternoon or early morning. This example is just to get the reader thinking-there are many ways to make a natural light baffle that also beautifies your area and provides shade and privacy. Compared to most artificial baffles, natural light baffles (barriers) are the least expensive and require the least maintenance in the long haul. Figure 8 (top) shows our recently planted line of Leeland Cyprus, which will completely block the light from two neighboring homes in about 4 years. If the same tree line was 25 feet from my observing site and 50 feet long (about 5 trees), after 5 years of tree growth the line it would block light from a two story building that is less than 100 feet away. It would also cover an angle of over 120 degrees (1/3 of all compass directions). The trees (2007 spring prices at a large retailer) were less than $100-including a couple 50 pound bags of planting soil.
Figure 8 follows
c. Artificial Baffles. Correctly placed temporary and artificial barriers are relatively easily constructed, removable, and can lay or stand flat during storage periods. There are products that are available on the market but they are a bit pricey. If you don't want to spend that kind of money, then a little handy work with heavy duck cloth or tarps and PVC pipe can result in a home-built variety. Pretty ones with wood or plastic products are more expensive, but they can also be nice as movable barriers for other purposes. In most cases, the height of artificial baffles only needs to be just above average height of a person to provide enough light baffling for neighboring light interference. If an owner already has a deck or a fence line, making an extension or panels to provide more height and solidity is sometimes a simple solution. In all cases, light baffling need only cover the compass directions where light is notoriously bright and is not in your control. A fully enclosed area is rarely needed.
d. Temporary Baffles. There are two quick light baffle arrangements for handling light interference that comes from high or second story lights or pole lights. Most people have the elements to them but don't realize it: step ladders and tarps. If you have a step ladder, go to any discount office store and get a couple packages of black foam board (6 or 8 sheets where each sheet is 2 feet by 4 feet). Go to a large have-everything store and get a couple sets of plastic clamps (the kind that will open to 3 inches or so and take one strong hand to open). Set your ladder between your observing position and the offending lights. Clamp as many sheets as you need to the ladder and you have built yourself a temporary light baffling wall that is cheap and quick to move. (See previous figure 8 bottom for our example.) I use the same arrangement to remove moon glow on high moon nights when employing an astro-video camera, which can be sensitive to moon light-especially if it is reflecting off broken clouds and haze. For an even simpler cheaper solution, consider a tarp (figure 9, next page). Oh the wonders of a tarp! In a pinch, I always have a couple along with some strong plastic clamps. 50 feet of rope, a few tent stakes, the tarps and clamps are the elements of a temporary baffle system. Of course, there are some wind limitations, but windy nights are not the favorite times for observing anyway. If you are concerned about light wind, then stake the ladder-based baffle to the ground by using a couple tent stakes and a rope that is tightened over the bottom rung of the ladder. If you have tarp baffle, you can clamp wood slats to the bottom with clamps for light wind conditions (see figure 8 bottom). All of this gear is inexpensive and can disappear into typical house storage when it is not in use.
4. Access to/from Storage and the Site. Access to get people to and from your site gets very important so that you can do it in the dark and visitors come/go without tripping over your stuff. It only takes a ribbon of concrete or brick or a line of bushes, etc. to encourage the route you want to see used. Think about this ahead of time and it can save an accident later. I placed my storage area so my star stuff always comes out and goes away in a direction that people are not going (see figure 7 lower left and figure 4 top). But there is another reason for having a defined access route and good connection to a storage area: weather. If you live in mid latitudes or further toward the poles, snow and ice can be a terrible detractor from observing, especially since they seem to occur just before a few clear nights (after the front passes). So, if you make your access deliberate and it connects nicely to your paved sites, you can clear them quickly after the offending precipitation. This is another advantage to a concrete slab. If you clear it promptly after a snow or ice storm, it will dutifully collect sun rays and dry itself in preparation for your observing session the next couple of nights. Grass and dirt are not as cooperative.
Figure 9 follows
THE WORK STEP SUGGESTIONS-WHAT TO DO FIRST, WHY, AND HOW
A. Which Comes First-Pad or Storage? I do not like wasted clear nights where the weather is great for observing but I cannot set up. This means that refining your home observation area has to be orchestrated to minimize disruption to normal observing. My wife, of course, thoroughly approves of any construction method that reduces the mess. For me, this meant building my storage first and living with a grass observing site for a couple months until I could complete the observing pad during free weekend time. This worked for us because our star stuff was stored in the house as the storage was being constructed. Then we shifted the storage to the new shed, continued observing on nearby grass, and began the pad construction. We simply constructed a board walk to a nearby grassy area while the pad was still being completed. It is one of those decisions one has to think about. Avoid doing everything at once since you may find there is neither storage nor observing site available for a few months. Such a condition causes photon starvation, which is not good for the soul that hungers to see the sky.
B. Storage Construction Considerations. When you build your storage (separated, in the house, or in a garage), size your cubicles or volumes for internal storage based on the largest pieces of your gear. A common mistake is to make dimensions too tight. Remember that you have to get your hand up and over or beside your star stuff to get it out and in. If possible, get stuff off the floor. Things on the floor get kicked in the dark, which is OK if it is a tough padded case, but is not OK if it is a sensitive mount. If you think you will need 3 shelves that are 2 feet long and 18 inches deep, then double your estimates. If you think you need one tall storage area for your single tripod and one upright pelican case, then put in two sections for tall storage. The message is simple: nearly everyone estimates storage far short of their needs a few years down the road. If you have room, build lots of storage or buy/make extra racks. In all cases, keep stuff clear of the door through which all of the star stuff will go out and come in. If you want to keep your building time to a minimum, then get the shell of separated storage building up (including the floor) so that is is closable and sealable. If you are not picky about the insides, then start using is right away and worry about finishing inside storage later. Some simple racks, hammered together with some OSB and studs will do just fine until you decide to finish things. This approach gets the observer using the storage and establishing a system of what goes where. The experience of a few observing nights will help refine your ideas about what you want to do in a more permanent way.
C. Pad Construction Considerations. Pad construction does not have to make your yard look like a total wreck but some mess is unavoidable. Pad construction is work, but with your shape and size and location chosen, the execution of the task is not complex. If your storage is adjacent to your pad like ours, then pad construction can make getting things in and out of your storage a little hard. If you are like me and want to keep using your storage during the pad construction period, then get a couple extra sheets of 1ž2 inch OSB and a few 2x4s to make your self a make-shift walk across your construction to get your star stuff out while work continues. Then you can continue to observe a little more easily while you pursue the construction of your concrete pad. If you have never done concrete work before, it is the preparation before mixing and pouring concrete that seems to take forever. Don't be dismayed if the site preparation and concrete form work take a little time. Mixing and pouring, while demanding some sweat, goes much faster than the initial site preparation time. Here are some construction reminders for a concrete pad construction that are important:
1. For anything larger than a single scope pad, I recommend sectioning your area. This does two things: it makes mixing and pouring do-able in smaller sections when you want it and it keeps vibrations through the slab localized. Sectioning is easy with pressure treated wood, which you can leave in place. And, these wood pieces also act as your guide for leveling and finishing.
2. Put rebar or metal pieces in your sections to reduce or eliminate cracking. You do not need a lot but a single piece laid a foot or so from the boundaries of your section and cross pieces every 3 feet or so help immensely. You will appreciate the effort the first time you clunk something really heavy on the section or a car backs up and snags a corner. You don't want cracks to develop from those events.
3. Don't go less than 3 inches thick. I have learned the hard way that skimping in thickness does not help. Ideally, keep your sections at least the thickness of a 2x4 (3.5 inches). With this thickness, it won't matter if you bang heavy tripods, load people up, or run over it with a little car.
4. Details for floating, finishing, etc. are in most little guides you can buy at a hardware store. Lowes, etc. They give you good pointers and pictures that help if you feel lost. If you have never done this before, read them before you receive your first concrete or start mixing yourself. When the concrete has set up such that it can be brushed with a broom so it marks the concrete in a shallow way, then we highly recommend "brooming" it so the surface is not real smooth.
5. I highly recommend putting a line in your concrete or using a separate form (like a diamond shape) so you have a visible reference to celestial north. This means sighting Polaris during the set up period (ahead of time). During the forming process you can stake the celestial north-south line with stakes outside your pad. When you pour your concrete, take a 1ž4 inch rope and simply draw it tight between the same stakes and carefully press it into the concrete when it is mostly set up and then lift it out. Or you can be fancier like we did and lay a diamond of concrete in your pad that indicates celestial north (see previous figures 3 and 4). You might be surprised at how many times these marks or lines have proven helpful as we have set up on our own pad.
D. Access to/from the Bed and Bath. Many folks seem to like sites far away from homes, but if you are following our reasoning and want the conveniences close, then keep in mind where the closest bed and bath is located near your site. The bath location needs marking in this sense: you want to encourage people to take one path to and from the facilities because it is dark. You want to minimize accidents and stray light but maximize convenience-especially when duty calls for your visiting children. So, make the path you want them to take-the sidewalk, grass with marker low intensity marker lights, a ribbon, anything to keep them where you want them to be so you do not have to be concerned. As for bed, it may seem mundane, but knowing your path to bed when tired is ever-so helpful. Again, we have found 5-10 candidate little red or blue lights or such so we put up automatically inside our house and outside when we observe. It is helpful for visitors but especially helpful for us during our last trips toward the bed.
E. Power and Light Considerations. Local inspectors get picky when you have built electricity into your site. But you do not have to do that if your site is within 150 feet of your house, which is the standard maximum length of an extension cord. Want electricity within your observing shed like we do? Then let your extension cord be fed through a piece of PVC pipe that is mounted in the observing shed wall. Inside our shed, the end of the cord goes to a 15 amp power bar. The results of this option are as follows: more than enough power to run scopes and associated equipment with little converters to DC, no critters can get in/out of the observing storage, and there is enough reserve power to run a tiny heater and a light or two for winter observing convenience.
REFINEMENTS AND LESSONS LEARNED
Wish We Had Done It Sooner! While it took about a year for us to work on our site and observing shed, it was during full time work and a normal busy life. So I believe the task is achievable for most people. Our observing periods greatly increased, our daytime use of the area became popular, and we have "beautified" an otherwise plain area. Most friends without observatories still operate from the same unimproved sites, and I think that is what most people do. But our experience tells us that the improvements were well worth the time because of our changes in observing habits. I think most people will find that improvements pay off. So, why wait to do it? If we had to do it over again, we would have done it sooner.
Make Your Pad Big Enough!! While I have mentioned this numerous times, please note figure 10 on the next page observing setups on two of our pads. The smaller pad is busy with equipment but very usable for one or two people with one scope. If it is desirable to have everything on the concrete, however, it is cramped for multiple scopes and groups of people. Hence, the bottom picture shows our setup for two scopes on a larger pad. It is suitable for 3-4 people and we have room to seat more company adjacent to the concrete pad.
If you have a choice to make something larger, do it!! You will not regret it and the increase in cost is not significant compared to the increase in use that a larger sized pad will permit.
Head Room and Elbow Room-Estimate on the High Side. For the height and internal volume of your observing equipment shed, it is worth over-emphasis on my part to the person who is anticipating refining it: estimate on the high side! You will not regret having the extra high clearance in your star shed and the extra inches of room in your internal storage.
Internal Storage-An Issue In Itself Inside the Shed. Internal storage in houses, usually designed by developers rather than people who are thinking about how much space they need, are usually poorly or scantily constructed. Please do not make the same mistake with astronomical storage inside your chosen or built storage area. With all the effort to make a shed or part of a garage or a room suitable for your scopes and stuff, give yourself as much space as possible and try to organize it. It will pay many dividends if you think about this and design/build accordingly. In translation to actual size, if your case has a certain dimension, your storage should permit an open hand to go over it or beside it to retrieve it from a shelf. If multiple cases go on the same shelf (like ours), then gear the dimensions toward the largest case you might put there-not the smallest!! Remember that the movement of equipment almost always occurs in the dark.
The Mobile Observing Site-A Subset. We rarely travel without a telescope kit. Part of our planning for our home site was to package our stuff into the right size crates so we were ready to roll somewhere else when we wanted to. As a result, we took some time to think things through ahead of time. What do we really need? Which scopes and EPs and equipment do we take? What cars are we taking? All of this filters down to pre-packaging our equipment. So when we set up on our home observing site, we are actually pulling out a couple travel kits worth of stuff. When we travel, we are simply taking part of the home kit but everything is in the same containers we use at home. This may seem simple, but it took several months and a couple failed pluck-foam pieces to finally get this down right. Now, however, I rarely have to think about what to grab and when. I know where it is in my home observing shed and I know what is in every box in the dark. Believe me: it pays to establish a system and portable storage if you want to observe away from home also. A couple of things we have found helpful follow:
1. Except for scopes, some storage boxes get unwieldy if they are too heavy or big. Our largest box (metal with foam) carries critical optical equipment but it weighs no more than 15-20 pounds. Others are smaller.
2. Group your boxes by function. Optical equipment (described above) is just that; we have separate boxes for solar things, astro-video things, and accessories.
3. An all-in-one box for a small scope plus the tripod is very helpful. In a pinch, this box has saved us many times when we needed a scope or needed to go in a hurry. It is worth the cost to get a case made for a scope PLUS what you need with it IF the total weight is well within your lifting ability. It follows that having a known and assigned storage location in your home observing arrangement is part of the solution.
4. We store our boxes in our storage shed in ways to make it easy to grab and go. With a completely enclosed and reasonably insulated shed (which we HIGHLY recommend), internal doors are not used. Rather, shelves and vertical spaces are open and easily accessed in the dark.
Suburban Observing Sites-Special Problems and Solutions. As I have talked with suburban and town dwellers, the problems of available sky and light pollution are more acute. However, I have also read about and observed some unique solutions. If you are one of these people lament the absence of a yard, do not give up yet!! Do you have a second or third story window with a decent view of part of the sky? Do you have a small porch-the famous kind that developers often add to the back of condos that are virtually useless? In either case, you may have a critical element for a small observing "pad". Using the planisphere method for recording your available sky, you may find that you have a decent piece of the sky that you can observe from a small porch or window. Those "useless" small porches are often connected to a large sliding glass doors. Judicious changes to a small porch or a change in windows (to one that has a large removable section at tripod height to a couple feet higher) may provide you much needed relief from photon starvation and permit the use of a small/medium refractor or SCT-even in a multi-storied condo! On these types of locations, light baffling the most annoying sources (not including sky glow) is usually easier to achieve than a full scale yard sight that can be seen by everyone. Most housing construction does not have excessive vibrations from floor/house movement that seriously disrupt viewing from a medium or small sized scope. Hence, even second or third story observing is quite do-able. If a window does have to be changed, the investment of one double-paned window where a major section can be removed is relatively small if you are going to observe on a regular basis! For the person with a very small yard that is sandwiched among multi-story dwellings, also don't despair until you select a couple sites and go through mapping your available sky. Many people are surprised at what the possibilities are if they think the problem through. Remember: the typical observer at home is at home because of convenience. So if you can work through your apparent limitations, you may be very satisfied for a large portion of your observing.
A Change in Tool Set to Handle High Sky-Glow. If a person goes to the trouble of refining a home observation site that has considerable sky glow, then a change in tool set might go hand-in-hand with the refinement. Sky glow is a big detractor for a large fraction of people, but remember that sky glow is a relatively even and steady background. In technical terms, this has a solution that is a lot cheaper than buying several inches of aperture (a much larger scope). New astro-video cameras and newer low-end astro-imaging cameras, because of the manner in which they integrate or add frames of information, treat sky glow as a level set of noise and permit seeing objects on an electronic output without breaking a bank account. Why mention this as part of refining a home observation site? Because a typical residential observer in a town or city still wants to make the best of use of available sky. In many cases, assisted-optics (as people call them) is a method for mitigating the sky-glow injury inflicted on their available sky. Besides, if a person refines a home condo porch or window for a thousand dollars, for instance, then investing an additional thousand to get a tool that will permit observing at home (without traveling for hours to overcome the significant sky glow) is small potatoes compared to time-consuming and other-location alternatives. The suburban observer, with an astro video or astro imaging camera and a modest sized scope, can do a lot that was not possible a decade ago-IF the home observation site has also been refined. The fact that he/she often owns a laptop and/or a high definition screen makes the output to these devices "seeable". We would love to hear from people that have practical solutions already working. I know they are out there.
On this last subject, we must admit a bias toward astro-video. We are often in light polluted areas where some key stars can be seen but that is about it. It does not stop us any more!! We simply take our astro-video camera and hook it to a modest go-to scope and view output on a small high resolution black and white CRT monitor. Furthermore, the solution permits us to entertain neighbors and children in the local area-without having to drag them 2 hours into the country to a local star party.
A CLOSING NOTE
As mentioned at the beginning of the article, the regularity and prevalence of home observation tells us that a large fraction of home observers have much to gain by refining their home sites for observing. Whether one uses our recommendations or has other ideas, the improvements don't happen without a plan and some work. We encourage you to start. Have fun. Post ideas. Post solutions that work. Post information on mistakes so others don't make them. And whatever you do, enjoy the improvements as you complete them by observing objects more easily and often at home. Some observers hold the opinion that amateur astronomy interest is waning. A key way to increase interest is for the backbone of the cadre of observers-those at home-is to show results from their observing where they live and where their neighbors live. The wonder of the heavens, reachable from your backyard, will speak for itself.
Roland and Linda Beard
Crozet, Virginia USA Psalm 19:1
About the authors: Roland and Linda Beard have only been observing since 2000. They began with a plain C-8 and now work with a medium Dob and a little C-5i. They observe about 30-50 times per year and half of those times are with friends and newcomers. They especially enjoy astro-video with a MallinCAM Hyper Color camera and sketching sky objects. Roland is sort-of retired and never looked through a telescope until he was 50. Linda is "blamed" for the hobby since she wanted a little scope in a local retail store around the turn of the century. This led to a little research and the first scope. They have never been quite the same since then. They can be contacted through CN and would be glad to hear about your home observation improvements. Their email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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