My Observatory Odyssey – Part 1

Harry Keller 80By Harry Keller
Former ETCJ Science Editor
& President of SmartScience

I have had to learn some real patience in my quest for a mountain cabin as well as an observatory.

May 4, 11:18 AM. My Odyssey began long ago. I could write about it as an article, a short story, a novella, or an epic novel. You wouldn’t think that making a small personal observatory could even begin to qualify, but you would not realize the number of detours that this tale might take and actually did take. The ultra-short version is that my company had some excess cash (once only) and was interested in upgrading its astronomy lessons. Our lessons use real experiments, real pictures, and hands-on measurement by students for the most part.

As I write this, the observatory shed is complete, but the dome is not installed, and the telescope remains 95 miles away on my living room floor, a very expensive cardboard coffee table (still in its shipping box).

My wife and I had purchased some mountain land for a cabin, and that land has a site that is really good for an observatory at 6,200′ elevation. So, we purchased the shed, the dome, the telescope, and the camera. We wrote these off and saved on our corporate taxes. It was nice of Uncle Sam to help finance our observatory. That’s the short version. 

The entire story begins around 1999. That year was when we first demonstrated the software that could deliver videos of real experiments to students and allow them to make their own measurements with a computer mouse. Our first experiments were mostly physics of motion because they lent themselves to this medium and process very well. Later, we added biology, chemistry, earth science, and astronomy.

Many of these fields were very difficult to design for online experiments, but astronomy was particularly troubling because the available media was not suitable for our purposes and because we did not have access to telescopes that would allow us to make our own videos and images. So, we set aside this yearning and concentrated on the other subject areas. If a really good video from NASA showed up, we were not hesitant to use it. This did happen once with the moons of Jupiter.

This problem with a lack of astronomy material was particularly frustrating for my son who graduated from Brown with a B.Sc. in physics with a minor in astronomy. He is now the company’s CEO. I think that you can imagine the excitement he had when those extra funds financed the building of a 10’x10′ observatory with an 8′-diameter dome and a 14” Meade telescope. The telescope is better than the one he used at Brown.

A stone wall that I build without the aid of machines but with some help from my wife.

Those purchases took place nearly two years ago. This is where the Odyssey launches. All else was preparation. As I write this, the observatory shed is complete, but the dome is not installed, and the telescope remains 95 miles away on my living room floor, a very expensive cardboard coffee table (still in its shipping box). Inside of that box lies a Meade Instruments 1210-90-03 14-inch LX200-ACF (f/10) Advanced Coma-Free Telescope. It cost thousands of dollars. So did the shed. The camera also was not cheap. It’s a Sony Alpha-7 RII. Altogether, the entire setup cost us well into five figures. We have yet to look through the telescope, an event known in astronomer circles as “first light.”

This is the place in the story where the storms come and blow our ship far from our destination.

For reasons that I will explain, the real Odyssey began in the fall of 2015. To understand why, I must take you on a detour, the first of many. I have had detours of detours. I have included a picture of a stone wall that I build without the aid of machines but with some help from my wife. You can see that slope at the left showing how the land rises up quickly. We bought a parcel of mountain land, about 1/4 of an acre, for a cabin. We then began the permitting process with the county of San Bernardino. The town is too small to be incorporated and is administered by the county.

This is the place in the story where the storms come and blow our ship far from our destination. It is also the place where you will lose sight of the observatory, the metaphorical land for Ulysses on the Homeric Odyssey. Patience is a virtue, they say, but I am not a patient man by nature. I have had to learn some real patience in my quest for a mountain cabin as well as an observatory.

How does building a house affect construction of an observatory? I own the land. I can do what I wish with it, right? Wrong.

To be continued in part 2.

3 Responses

  1. Harry, building a mountain cabin lot with an observatory — sounds like a dream in the making. -Jim

  2. I look forward to the continuation. The analogy to Homer’s Odyssey is apt, even after Part 1; especially so from one who has already crossed many ‘little Rubicons’. Mrs K’s stone wall is no small success along the gradient.

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