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Urban Balcony Observing Tips & Experiences

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#1 dr.who


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Posted 22 May 2019 - 05:50 PM

As I get closer and closer to the time when I retire and begin to consider where I will likely end up living I realize it will likely be a condo down by the sea but in a very built up urban area. I am targeting downtown San Diego in the Gaslamp district. That area because as I age, if I do not do so gracefully, I have a good public transportation infrastructure, a vibrant area full of entertainment and eateries as well as sports venues, and so on. There is also top flight medical care and a host of specialists in all disciplines. Lastly I also get very temperate weather since downtown is right on the bay.


However this means a tradeoff. No backyard to observe from. Likely few to no dark sky trips. I did map out a public transportation path to a Orange zone but that isn't anywhere near the Blue/Green zone I am used to now. There will be a balcony. Plus I like to plan ahead.  Right now I am looking at either a West, North, or South facing balcony. The roof of the balcony will likely hinder everything 5-10 degrees from zenith but I will be high enough up that there will not be another building blocking views that would be worthwhile. I am guessing likely I will have from 35 degrees up. The reason for the balcony situation is She Who Must Be Obeyed wants at least some view of the bay.  And if I am alone I too will want to see the ocean/bay though this is a lower priority for me. I will likely have a 8" reflector (Mewlon 210) and a 4- 5" APO (maybe a TSA-120 or a Tele Vue NP101is or both) to work with on the balcony. The public transportation scope will be a 80-102mm APO on a light weight mount. 


Some caveats: 1. I do not want a Dob. 2. I do not want binoculars. 3. Target wise I am planning on the moon, planets, and double stars. My plan is to go after those plus the brighter asterisms and open clusters. 4. I may try EAA. 5. I do not want to use NV. The reason for #5 is personal and is not open for discussion. 


Thus the subject of my post. What are your tips, insights, and experience on how to do urban observing from a balcony. What have you folks found? What are good targets? What are the considerations, problems, and solutions to balcony observing?

#2 ButterFly


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Posted 22 May 2019 - 06:54 PM

1 is obvious and 2 and 5 are just preference.  Against this backdrop, I have two comments: ditch North so you can add solar to 3 and see the moon and planets; and, a refractor may be better than a reflector.  Your buliding will give off heat and that makes a wall of wavy air.  You can stick out the refractor a bit to help with that.  Same goes for big parking lots or black tar roofs along the line of sight.  Avoid those as much as possible or observe much later at night.  One good 4" APO and two mounts sounds about right for 4 and public transportation.


Blocking the extraneous bright light sources while allowing circulation can be handled with a wide netting material that you can clip hand towels onto in the right places.


5-10 degrees off zenith sounds rather optimistic in general, but that's great.  Top floor if you can!

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#3 photomagica


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Posted 22 May 2019 - 06:54 PM

Look for a building that also has roof-top amenities.  Sometimes these days condos have a patio, bar, garden or other facilities up there. Something like this might be nice for your portable telescope.


#4 dr.who


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Posted 22 May 2019 - 07:24 PM

Cheers guys. Good advice. You are likely right. 5-10 is optimistic. I would love top floor but the pricing for it becomes quite severe since it's considered penthouse. 


Bill - good idea. I was leaning that way but am worried that they won't let me turn off all the lights up there. Likely could see if it could be written into a contract or something...

#5 areyoukiddingme



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Posted 23 May 2019 - 03:35 AM

I do a lot of balcony viewing, and I'm in a first floor (with second above) with the view being blocked above.


If you can find a way to avoid that, I'd do so. Also keep an eye out for a place in your building where you may be able to get a scope in a yard with 360 degree views if you can.


Other than that, I find that my now sold 11" Edgehd with binoviewers was close to ideal for the balcony on moon and planets. Your Mewlon should be excellent in that role.


Getting the scope up on a tripod gets it easily above the railing, and I just find a SCT a great match for binoviewers. For some reason I just can't get the same comfort on refractors or reflectors.


My balcony faces South East, and I do like that I can watch objects rising and then get them once they clear trees across the way. When planet season stars, and you have to wait until late to get a view, if you are facing too far south, you'll have to wait longer . . . 


Also keep in mind what is perhaps the only thing a French philosopher ever got right (Sartre I believe): "Hell is other people".

#6 jcj380



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Posted 23 May 2019 - 08:08 AM

No balcony, but I'm limited to a deck with a North to South view.  Chicago muck is to the east, but I like the southern view so I can catch things as they approach the meridian.  I'd vote for a southern view if you don't need to align on the NCP.

#7 Jeff Lee

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Posted 23 May 2019 - 08:15 AM

While I live on an acre, very near downtown Portland, I've found EAA and an AZ mount the solution to viewing in light polution. If I lived on a balcony I'd still be OK with my C8 and 4" APO. The reason I am such a big EAA fan is that with 2 cameras (one large sensor and one small like the 224) so many objects are available and you can do it at the scope or inside. Summer I like to be outside and during those rare clear winter nights and cold weather, inside. As we age you have to find the right mix that makes you want to view, and @69 EAA for the last year has "kept me in the game". I went from, in 15 years I've seen all I can see in my location visually, to doing the Herschel 2500 from my yard. Good luck in your choices.

Edited by Jeff Lee, 23 May 2019 - 08:18 AM.

#8 astronomus1930


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Posted 23 May 2019 - 01:04 PM

Greetings fellow urban stargazers!

I observe from a high floor balcony in Chicago so we probably suffer from the same the light pollution problem. For all intents & purposes, looking out over the lake is the same as looking out over the ocean. That said, my 10x50 binoculars can see down to 8th magnitude on a good night. But as I scan west over the city, that LM easily drops to 5 or 6. 

To give you a sense of possibilities, M13 & M92 are easy. Even M27 and M15 on a good night. I suspect that with a 'scope you should have plenty to keep you happy for years to come.

Good hunting!

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#9 mikerepp


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Posted 23 May 2019 - 01:47 PM

Get a south view if possible.  Most targets are South and it opens up solar.   Also get some vibration pads like the Celestron brand.   This will help with vibrations on the balcony.   Remember it is more prone to vibrations than a deck since its cantilevered out from the building.  

I deal with the Chicago light dome also, the higher you can view the better.   Also any stray light from the neighbors balcony/window etc will need to be dealt with.  Small light screen will probably do the trick for you.  I view in the backyard but have a street light in the alley about 20' away.   I use a tarp attached to my weather station pole that is attached to the garage.  the other end of the tarp has a piece of conduit attached.  This is rolled up against the weather station pole.   When I need to use it I just unroll and put the conduit end into a piece of PVC pipe that is in the ground in the garden.  Pull it taunt with a bungee cord from that conduit to the fence.   I also have another tarp that is attached to a lawn swing to block some parking lot lights a block away.

Good luck, hope you find something that works for you.

#10 justfred



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Posted 23 May 2019 - 09:49 PM

You've got a great plan. A 3 to 4 inch refractor, alt/az mount, maybe COL, and a good observing chair... keep someone busy for a long time. Have a good dew shield  for the scope and  a dark hood for yourself to make your own shady spot. Put something dark under you as well. 


Our club sets up on top of the parking deck for the McWayne Science Center in Downtown Birmingham. They have nightime viewing sessions occasional and its always fun. Doubles, a crescent moon, a few planets, some open clusters and asterisms and an occultation if we're lucky. Some of the brighter carbon stars are nice. The dimmer stuff is tougher but if the transparency is exceptional even those can be coaxed out. And don't forget the daytime.


Where every you are there is always something worth viewing.


Let us know how it goes.



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#11 ButterFly


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Posted 23 May 2019 - 10:49 PM

Tarps can be loud in the wind and balconies usually adjoin neighbors.  And wind cutouts always seem to find the nearest streetlight for some reason.  Slotted balcony walls looking down onto an array of streetlights are the worst.

#12 RazvanUnderStars



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Posted 25 May 2019 - 09:02 AM

EAA has been a "life saver" for me - I live in Toronto so LP is as bad as it can get. With EAA I can see M27 in colour, much fainter stars than visually and with narrow-band filters (eg O-III or H-alpha) you can beat light pollution. The hardware & software (SharpCap in particular) currently available are great and you don't need to dark-adapt the eyes either. So you can go DSO if you want but even within the solar system, you can try fainter asteroids, normally without a chance under city LP.


And another vote for the vibration pads - very useful, as mikerepp said.

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