Building My Very Own Observatory: Location… Location… Location

As far as amateur astronomers go, I am about as fortunate as it comes. The list of fortunes I have going for me is endless, and I am so grateful for what I have and what I have access to. First, at the very top of the list is my involvement in the Kopernik Observatory and Space Education Center and the Kopernik Astronomical Society (KAS). Located in the foothills of the town of Vestal, near Binghamton, NY, is this beautiful educational facility equipped with top notch astro-equipment, top notch staff, and of course the involvement of the top notch KAS. The equipment list of this facility is staggering, including three fully functional domes, three high quality telescopes (including an OGS 20” RC).

Next on the list, is my local neighborhood. Although I am still in the suburbs, I have fairly dark skies for being the heart of the burbs. My next door neighbor is a huge astronomy enthusiast, and my own personal collection of equipment is slightly above average.

Next on the list, probably the darkest accessible skies in the northeast are only 3 hours away in Cherry Springs State Park, PA. To pack up and go to this awesome attraction is a pretty convenient thing, especially for the quality of skies that can be had there.

Despite all of my access to the needed tools of the hobby, I still crave building my own observatory. This is the start of a long journey to get to that point, and I am going to try and record each and every detail here to share my discoveries with others.

Step #1 – Identify the location: The most important part of the observatory is the location. The criteria I set forth for this was to find a location that:

– Very dark skies
– Was within a 30 minute drive from my home.
– Was at a high enough elevation to counteract any local light pollution
– Able to get to the dark site via road (even a bad one)
– Receives a decent cell phone signal for internet connectivity.

Of course, with this in mind, there were other desires that I am willing to work around. Access to electricity would be real huge advantage. However, entering the age of green energy, there are a lot of technologies out there that could be used to overcome this. I spent some time with hardcore campers/hunters last summer, and between a small generator, solar power, and a battery system, this can all be overcome quite easily.

So I set out on my quest last year to find the perfect spot. Wow…there are a lot of good sites out there once I started combing through remote properties for sale. However, the biggest requirement I had that I could not overcome in all the spots I was finding was the road thing. If you are going to build an observatory at the top of a big hill, and you are going to continuously be moving expensive equipment around, this is an imperative. Making a driveway and a road are two totally different challenges due to the distance, and the likely barriers you are going to follow. I really wanted to purchase land with a road on it already.

Other than that one requirement, I was able to find about 5-6 sites that seemed to meet most of the convenience criteria for observing. And then one day…I went to help my father-in-law in getting some firewood. And OH-MY-GOD! My good fortune in amateur astronomy jumped to new levels.

We drove to his land where he practices forestry and uses the scrap trees for fire wood in the winter. We turned onto this narrow dirt road, and started circling around the hill in what seemed to be a random manner. An entire web of these roads surrounded all the boundaries of the various properties in this remote location. He decided to take me for a tour of his property, and before you knew we were climbing….and climbing….and climbing…wow…up pretty darn high. I pulled out my handheld GPS…1482 feet. I screamed, “STOP!”

He looked at me funny, and stopped! I got out of the car, a roughly flat plateau at the an elevation of 1482 ft. Ok so far, we have roads, a 1482 ft plateau, and my interest. I looked around…tons of trees….oof. I will likely end up at the end of this venture wishing I had put the “no trees” requirement onto my list. Through the trees, I could see straight shots of all horizons. Al directions I had pretty good visibility once the plateau trees are cleared.

I fell in love with this spot. Next thing was to check cell phone reception….three bars….PERFECT! Five is always better, but normally where there are 5 bars…there are lights! Three will do just fine. This place is 35 minutes from my home…again…close enough! The last thing to was check the Sky Quality rating for this location. When I returned home, logged into the clear sky chart site, entered in my the longitude and latitude I got off of the GPS, and the cycle was complete…a green rated location. About as dark of a sky as you are going to find on 30 minutes away from civilization.

I had found the site for my new observatory. After a short discussion with my father in law, he was actually excited about such a project. And now I was able to start dreaming….

The next blog entry on this will cover my design considerations, and coming up with a plan for the observatory.

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