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SkyShed POD (Personal Observatory Dome)

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I recently (7 months ago) purchased a SkyShed POD (Personal Observatory Dome). The reason was because there has been a proliferation of "security" lights in my neighborhood here in central Indiana. I figured that a dome would work better to screen out unwanted glare from my neighbors, who have been less than cooperative. I also wanted something that I could take with me, in case my new observing site suffered the same fate as my last one and had to be changed, not to mention avoiding the necessity of abandoning my observatory the wife and I moved after retirement. This was a major consideration.

I should state that I've been an amateur astronomer for 25 years, 23 of which I've had a roll-off observatory housing a 13" Coulter Dobsonian. I also have an 8" SCT and a 5" Mak, various binoculars, etc. I'm not a neophyte, although this is about the POD, not my observing prowess.

My impressions and experiences follow:

Setup was substantially easier than building an observatory from scratch. However, the process wasn't exactly seamless. The dome comes in two pairs (four quadrants) that have to be mated up. In my case, mating the dome quadrants was quite difficult, especially the insulated ones, as the holes didn't want to line up. I was able to get it together by not following the instructions on the DVD. The wall/bay/door sections are not all the same height and it requires some forcing and judicious use of a drill to get the parts together. Because of these two problems the dome kinda "bumps along" during rotation; it moves readily enough, but doesn't really impress. The dome won't shed water without using a lot of sealant; but once you do get it sealed, it works okay. I bought an extra cover for it as cheap insurance against water ingress.

Generally speaking the POD components appear to have wide tolerances and do not have the "feel" of high-tech scientific equipment. To be fair, my old observatory was built using my own plans, and I don't know if other commercial products are significantly better. It functions to my satisfaction.

The bays (I bought five of them) provide a lot of storage and are designed to nest within each other. This is good for shipping but not so good for putting things in there, like a shelf or a cabinet or anything nominally rectangular. This hasn't been a big handicap but there is some wasted space and it doesn't look all that great.

As might be expected, the POD requires a flat surface on which to set up. You could set up on bare ground if you had to (say, if you took it to a star party). I built a wooden deck, and many folks have put down concrete slabs for theirs. I think the wood deck option is better because any driven rain that finds its way in can readily get out.

Being a dome, I had to buy a pier and a large SCT so I could use the observatory and still view near the horizon. So my precious Dobsonian that served me so well for so many years is now in storage. This problem is not unique to a POD. If you have a big Dobsonian and a dark site and don't want to buy another telescope, a roll-off of some kind is probably a better option.

Is it portable? If you don't buy the bays, it's probably the most portable observatory available. But the dome, once put together, is still pretty cumbersome and heavy. You could probably put the whole observatory in a full-size pickup truck, just barely, with a helper. If you buy some bays, I think you realistically have just sacrificed the "portability factor." This is not a major issue for me. I can knock it down and move it if I need to, but I don't expect to have to do that very often.

Observing-wise, there is plenty of room in a POD for 2-3 people to comfortably stargaze with a telescope on a fork mount. If you get above that, or have a German equatorial, you're going to experience tighter quarters. This is to be expected with an 8' dome.

Perhaps the most objectionable thing about the POD is the design of the clamshell dome. Half the dome pivots up to expose the sky, the other half remains in place. So there is no real access to the zenith; and during use, half of the dome isn't there. With no real "slit" there remains an opportunity for light ingress. SkyShed offers a "zenith table" (PZT) on which you can slide the dome back a foot or two to remedy the first problem. I don't have one of these, but obviously once you slide off the dome it can't rotate anymore. So the PZT strikes me as a patch on a design problem; although it's not a big issue for me, as I use my scope in altaz mode for the most part, and accurate pointing near the zenith is problematical anyway.

As I said, I bought the POD to block neighboring lights, so the second issue really hits home. A retrofit "visor" is being designed to conquer the second problem and provide a "slit" more akin to the classic dome design. I really need one of these, and its eventual availability was a major factor in my buying a POD. So far it's been vaporware, but prototypes have been made and hopefully they will soon be commercially available.

Did I mention the price? The POD is substantially less expensive than many personal observatory options. Most observatory vendors expect you to build a building of some kind on which to set their dome, and the dome alone will cost more than an entire POD. If you need a roll-off, I suggest you design and build your own. If you need a dome, you can't beat this price, and all you really need is a level base. Time will tell if it will survive for 23+ years, like my last observatory.

I hope this review helps folks make an informed decision. All told, SkyShed POD was the right option for me. If you want to actually see my observatory, please visit http://personalpages.tds.net/~ikc


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