The StarFarm Observatory

For whatever reason (including lack of creativity) every time I build a new observatory I call it The StarFarm.  It goes way back to when I used to publish my own little “zine” called “The StarFarmer’s Almanac”.  I guess it’s fitting that in these more technologically enlightened times that I instead direct my literary efforts towards a blog.  I’m sure just as many people will read this as ever read “The StarFarmer’s Almanac” (as many as a few).

The StarFarm Throughout the Years

12.5 inch scope at Bill Nigg's Place

In 1977 The StarFarm was an open field in southwestern Michigan where I would set up my 12.5-inch newtonian.

Throughout the years the StarFarm has experienced several incarnations.  The first was an open field where I would set up my 12.5-inch newtonian telescope.  The field was property owned by a friend’s parents.   There was a small barn where I stored the telescope and would drag it out to the field when I wanted to use it.  It was located about 20 miles SW of Kalamazoo, Michigan under some really nice and dark skies.  The only problem was that I did not own a car at the time and so had to ride my bike about 15 miles each way or try to induce another member of the local astronomy club (the Kalamazoo Astronomical Society) to drive out there with me for an evening of deep sky observing.

This was Blaine Roelke’s observatory building west of Taneytown, MD, the day we moved the newly-completed 17.5-inch reflector into the dome.

The second StarFarm was near Taneytown, Maryland.  The building, topped with an 8-foot AshDome, was owned by Blaine Roelke and was  located on his property just a few miles from the first large foothills of the Appalachian Mountains.  The skies were pretty dark out there, but it was a 45 mile drive in each direction.   Many were the nights that I’d drive all the way out there only to be clouded out.  Still, it was the first telescope that I actually used for stellar photometry, mostly using an Optec SSP-3 solid-state photometer.  The telescope was a fork-mounted 17.5-inch Newtonian that I’d built using an optics set from a Coulter Oddesy telescope given to me by Joe Patterson.  Joe and I had met while I was a graduate student and he a post-doc in the Astronomy Department at the University of Michigan.   For the most part I observed eclipsing binary stars, to determine their time of mid-eclipse.  The skies were so nice; I actually spent most of the time just observing faint fuzzy objects.

This was The StarFarm as completed, just west of Reisterstown, MD. A 12-foot dome made of Masonite and plywood. It leaked.

The next StarFarm was a 12-foot domed observatory of my own design that was built on property owned by Dave Pesagno, this time just a few miles west of Reisterstown, Maryland, some 20 miles NW of Baltimore.   Blaine had found it necessary to sell his farm in Taneytown in order to take a new job in Virgina, so I needed a new location.  I built the dome in sections in my basement throughout the winter of 1987, finally assembling all the pieces in my back yard in June of 1988.  The lower section of the building was built in late July of ’88 and then the dome sections trucked from my house to Reisterstown in August.  First light occurred in late August of 1988, celebrated by a large star party that included a number of local amateurs as well as bunches of co-workers from the Space Telescoep Science Institute, many of whom had helped me with the observatory’s construction.

This is the 17.5-inch telescope used in both the Taneytown and Reisterstown StarFarms. Mounted on a huge equatorial fork, 2-inch steel axels for declination and 3-inch right-ascension axel. The axels were welded to steel plates then bolted to the 3/4-inch plywood.

The skies at the new location were definitely not as dark as Tayneytown, but the fact that the observatory was now located less than half the distance from me than it had been previously meant I used it a lot more frequently, at lest for a few years.  I built a sturdy holder that helped secure the SSP-3 photometer to the side of the telescope, and found a used IBM-PC with a roomy 10-megabyte drive to automatically log and reduce the data.  It was a huge step up from what I was doing before, which basically amounted to reading the photometer’s digital display into a tape recorder with WWV time signals blasting away in the background as a time standard.  All-in-all this setup worked pretty well and I managed to do a reasonable amout of photometry, mostly of eclipsing binaries, but also of short-period red variables  in the AAVSO’s observing program.   By late 1991, however, for a number of reasons, my interest in the observatory began to wane.  By 1994 I had removed the telescope and eventually discarded all but the primary mirror and diagonal.

It was late in 2005 that I began to consider putting a telescope at home, right where I lived, instead of having to drive somewhere to use it.  By then the 17.5-inch was in pieces stored in a warehouse in SW Baltimore.  I had, in 2000, purchased the house that I now live in, just four miles from the center of downtown Baltimore.   So it seemed that a fast focal ratio reflector was less than optimal.  Besides, I wanted to use a CCD camera on something with a decent clock-drive; some setup that could all be run by computer.   It all pointed towards something along the lines of either a Meade or Celestron SCT (Schmidt Cassegrain Telescope).  In early 2006 I purchased the first of the two Celestron 14-inch telescopes that now comprise the backbone of the current StarFarm

The StarFarm Today


A view of Beverly Hills Observatory from 2012

The StarFarm as currently configured (January 2013) is two domed observatories in my back yard, each equipped with identical 14-inch Celestron telescopes on CGE computer controlled go-to mountings.  The first (referred to as C14#1 or “Rig 1”) is housed in a building of my own design and construction, essentially an 8-foot octagonal building with a rotating dome constructed from various sized rectangles and triangles of plywood.  C14#2 is housed in a Technical Innovators 10-foot ProDome.  Rig #1 has an SBIG ST8xme camera attached to it, along with a set of Custom Scientific BVRI and clear filters installed in an automated filter wheel.  Rig #1 can also be used with an SBIG SGS spectrograph for low and medium-resolution spectroscopy (R=600 and R=2400, respectively).  Rig #2 features an SBIG ST9xe camera, again fitted with an automated filter wheel loaded with Custom Scientific BVRI and clear filters.  The telescopes are run remotely from my study using Remote Desktop, though I do have to visit them every 45 minutes or so in order to turn the domes and to focus; new automated and temperature-compensating focusers are on the short list for new purchases!

The vast majority of the observing time is dedicated to monitoring cataclysmic variables, largely at the behest of Joe Patterson at Columbia University, who donated the optics for the 17.5-inch (see above).  When the cataclysmics are all being quiet I’ll sometimes monitor a few eclipsing binaries to determine times of minimum, usually for the AAVSO (American Association of Variable Star Observers).

Each telescope has it’s own laptop computer.  MaxIm DL is used for camera control and data acquisition.   TheSky 6 is used for pointing the telescope and acquiring targets.  Image calibration is done in Mira UE7 and Mira ProScript; reductions of photometric data are handled by Mira and by IDL 8.01.  Spectroscopic data are calibrated and reduced using IRAF.  I’ve augmented all the above with a number of programs written in IDL, lua, and VBScript.

Having an observatory outside my back door has completely revolutionized how and what I observe.  The night skies here are never dark.  On the best of nights the sky is a deep blue color; on bad nights the sky is orange.  But because the telescopes are so close I use them almost every clear night.  My observing logs show that since the first observatory was completed (Rig #1) in August of 2006, I’ve observed 90-100 nights a year.  Now that there are two complete observatories the task of calibrating and reducing all the data has become the main bottleneck!

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