Our Stairway to the Stars
Ever since we first became interested in astronomy some 30 years ago, we dreamed of a backyard observatory that we could call our very own. That dream became a reality when we bought a house in the suburbs of Boston.
Our backyard is wide, open, and spacious. However, it also slopes at a steep, 35° angle. Despite this challenge, we decided to use the slope to our advantage and designed our observatory to sit on a massive, 8-by-12-foot wooden deck near the top of the slope. At this level, the telescope and its enclosure would be some 20 feet off the ground — high enough for the telescope's view to clear most of our neighbors' trees and the roof of our house. Access to the deck is by a 22-step, L-shaped stairway.
We chose a 6-foot-diameter commercial fiberglass dome to house our 10-inch f/6.3 Meade LX200 Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope for several reasons: first, a dome is more compact than the roll-off-roof design; second, it offers maximum protection from wind, dew, and stray light while observing; and third, a white, gleaming dome reminds us of the great mountaintop professional observatories we had visited in the past. It’s like having a miniature version of Palomar or Kitt Peak Observatory in our backyard!
While the sight of such a structure might excite an amateur astronomer, we were concerned that our neighbors might look at it differently. To introduce them to the idea of having an observatory in their midst, we held an all-night star party in our driveway on the night of a total lunar eclipse. (We even held a slide show beforehand to explain how and why such events happen.) Our neighbors, together with their children and friends, had a great time. When we casually brought up the virtues of a backyard observatory, they not only supported the idea but even offered to turn off their porch lights when they see us out observing.
To comply with local zoning laws and building codes, we applied for a construction permit at City Hall. All the required paperwork and inspections went smoothly.
Working after office hours and on weekends and holidays (including making countless trips to the local Home Depot), we finished excavating the foundation and constructing the deck in about five months. To support the deck posts and telescope pier, we made concrete footings using 8- and 12-inch-diameter forms. Reinforced with ½-inch rebars, the footings are anchored 4½ feet into the slope, well below the frost line.
The deck and stairway were constructed mainly of 1-by-6, 4-by-4, 6-by-6, and 2-by-10 pressure-treated lumber. A one-inch gap separates the telescope pier from the deck floor to isolate the instrument from vibrations. The pier, a recycled streetlamp post, is filled with sand to further dampen vibrations.
To prevent soil erosion, we planted evergreens and other shrubs all around the observatory. For safety, all cables and power lines from the house to the observatory are buried underground.
Assembling the base and dome was straightforward; the most time-consuming part was making sure the dome's base ring was perfectly level and circular so the dome would rotate smoothly.
Our observatory was completed in late 1998. We christened it “Edwelda Observatory,” after the asteroid that was named in our honor. To mark this milestone, we had a “first light” celebration. Our telescope’s first target was an all-time favorite: Messier 31, the great Andromeda Galaxy.
Since we live only a short distance from downtown Boston — and a few miles from a huge shopping mall — our skies are moderately light-polluted. Our limiting magnitude on a clear, moonless night is about 4. This doesn’t seriously affect our activities since we do mainly CCD imaging of deep-sky objects.
The observatory is a work in progress. Ultimately, we plan to automate the telescope and dome so we can operate them remotely from the house some 30 feet away. Two wireless, networked computers will be installed — one for operating the telescope, CCD camera, and dome, the other for processing images and analyzing and archiving data.
Our house’s basement study, which will be our future telescope control room, doesn’t have a window facing the observatory so we plan to install a small, security-type closed-circuit video camera and a "baby monitor" inside the dome so we can see and hear what's happening there. We also plan to hook up a wireless weather station and cloud monitor so we'll know what it's like outside before or during an observing session.
Ultimately, we hope to make the observatory environmentally friendly by making it energy independent and self sufficient through solar power. By using photovoltaic cells, we can harness the Sun’s energy during the day to charge the storage batteries that will power all the equipment at night.
In addition to visual observing and CCD imaging, our future projects will include conducting astrometry, photometry, and spectroscopy of asteroids, comets, and novae.
Edwelda Observatory's Clear Sky Chart
The Clear Sky Charts — created, compiled, and maintained by astronomer Attilla Danko — give weather forecasts for more than 3,700 observing sites throughout North America. In this case, it’s for Edwelda Observatory in Massachusetts.
At a glance, the chart shows when the sky conditions will be favorable for astronomical observation and imaging for up to the next 48 hours. The predictions are generated based on weather data provided by the Canadian Meteorological Center in New Brunswick. Click on the chart above to see the current forecast at Edwelda Observatory in terms of cloud cover and sky transparency, seeing, and darkness, as well as wind, humidity, and temperature.
Observatory Construction Photos
Selecting and surveying the site for the observatory.
Imelda and Edwin use stakes and mason's string to lay out the
Edwin gets ready with the shovel, posthole digger,
and concrete tube forms.
Diggng holes for the deck's concrete footings was all done by hand
(we did not rent a power auger). It was a slow, laborious process
since the ground was full of rocks and small boulders.
Each hole for the concrete footing was more than four feet deep,
so we had to add another foot to the tube form to keep the footing
above ground level.
Some of the dozens of 60-pound bags of portland cement
that we used for the observatory project.
Imelda mixing concrete in a wheelbarrow.
The concrete was carried up the slope, bucket by bucket,
and poured into the tube forms.
After the concrete footings had cured, a galvanized iron post anchor was
attached to the L-bolt embedded in each footing.
Erecting the deck's posts, beams, and joists.
Digging the hole for the concrete column that will support the telescope pier.
The tube form for the pier's concrete column was eight feet long.
The plywood template with the four half-inch L-bolts that will hold the
telescope pier in place.
Edwin uses a bubble level and plumb bob to make sure that the template
is level and positioned exactly at the center of the column.