April 6, 2020

Constructing the Very Small Optical Observatory.

Ahhh… eternal the lure of having ones’ own observatory. Batman has the Bat-cave, Superman has his Fortress of Solitude, and sooner or later, every astronomer heeds the siren song of having a place he and his mammoth telescope can call home. The perks are many fold; an observatory means you spend more time observing, not lugging, setting up, aligning, watching the clouds roll in, and packing it all back in. This week, I’m going to tell you the tale of how I built my own modest shrine to the stars, cheaply and quickly.

Of course, observatories do run the gambit… checkout this link for everything from a sliding shed (we love the unconventional ones!) to a very clever “Outhouse Observatory“. If you look hard, you’ll notice the VSOO is still there among the rolls! Our fave? The Ptolemy’s Cafe Observatory designed like a Japanese tea-house…very classy. You can also pimp out your observatory to be the envy of a large university, to the tune of a second mortgage. David Levy’s Jarnac observatory (which was only about a mile away from the VSOO) comes to mind. True, an observatory may be a once in a lifetime construction; by all means, don’t settle for second best. But don’t forget the two basic functions of an observatory; to shelter your scope when its not in use, and to give you the ability to quickly swing it into action when it is.

I knew when we moved to Vail, Arizona, outside of Tucson, in late 2001 that the time was nigh to hatch plans for my own astronomical lair. I also knew that we loved the mobile lifestyle; we’ve never stayed any where more than 4 years in our adult lives. My day job (the military) also assured that this would be strictly a weekend project…I needed something quick and cheap to house that 10″ Meade Schmidt-Newtonian I had just bought…

And thus, the Very Small Optical Observatory (VSOO) was born. Hey the Very Large Array has their cute acronyms, I have mine. At least it wasn’t “star-base 11″ or anything…

To dome or not to dome? True, nothing says “astronomy” like a dome. And rotating it when your friends are around is just plain cool. But don’t forget the purpose of a dome, which is to block that meddlesome wind from vibrating your tube on a wind swept mountain. Professionals will also tell you that domes, like tubes, also tend to trap in “cruddy seeing” and must be flushed by blower fans before the real observing action begins.

We chose a simple “push-off” roof observatory, to keep an open view of the sky. The structure was built from a Sears 9 x 10 foot shed, which I modified to make the roof push off. Never fear to depart from the instructions when they don’t suit your needs. I built a four post cloths-line trellis to the east to support the roof when open, and a set of five locks (one for the door, one for each corner of the roof,) secured it when shut. A plywood floor completed the structure. All told, the VSOO cost around $500 dollars and took me about two days to build. Some re-enforcement brackets were necessary to assure the walls and the roof stayed rigid when open, but all in all, the structure worked out well, and gave me intrinsically more “eye-piece time”… My biggest near mistake? Make sure the peak of the roof doesn’t cover the North Celestial Pole when slid back… this is why I built it to slide off to the East. The time to discover this is not once its anchored in and the floor and walls are up…kinda hard to pick the whole thing up and spin it 90 degrees!

The VSOO…the Movie!

Of course, the scope sat on its field tripod on the plywood floor… the jitter wasn’t extreme, unless a bunch of people (or dogs) were walking around inside. Speaking of which, our Lab(s) had a great time providing observatory security. When I was doing astro-photography, I would close the door and stand outside with the shutter release cable. When finished, I simply had to put the scope and “park” or “sleep” mode and it was ready to go whenever, no aligning necessary. If one had the time and money, a concrete pier would have been a good upgrade . One unique idea I had was to simply cut three holes in the floor, sink three pieces of 6″ PVC into the ground, and fill them with concrete, thereby creating three “pedestals” for the legs that are separate from the floor.

But alas, we sold the house, moved (eventually) to Florida, and the VSOO is now most likely doing duty as a utility shed. Perhaps the axiom that “where ever you can see the stars is your own private observatory” has a grain of truth to it, but I would maintain that the guy who said that was probably just broke! I have further aspirations to maybe one day build an observatory with it’s own stand-alone solar power, warm room, automation,  and tricked out hydraulics, but you never forget your first…


  1. Fingersoup says:

    Wow! Sweet setup Mr. Dickinson ~ It’s a shame you had to leave it. =/


  1. [...] our attention whist in repose, sipping an Armagnac brandy (shaken not stirred) at the then stately Very Small Optical Observatory (VSOO)  in Vail, Arizona. It was in these halcyon days that my trusty assistant, Marianne (names [...]

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