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Depending on whom you speak with, this is either...

  • An outbuilding that was constructed in willful and flagrant violation of the covenants and restrictions of the Ox Bottom Homeowner's Association (if you spoke with certain of my neighbors)
  • A shack that is an eyesore, and should have been built in a less-sturdy manner so that it would be easier to tear down. Although, it does block the view of the old lady across the way when she sits outside and smokes a cigarette and coughs like a Kentucky coal miner (if you spoke with my wife)
  • An observatory, an inner sanctum and refuge from the madness of the world, a place to study astronomy and cosmology - the greatest scientific disciplines known to man (if you asked me)

Building the observatory was a great experience. Mostly because half-way through I freaked out and decided I had no idea what I was doing and that it was going to be an utter disaster and a terrible waste of money. At the same time, neighbors (that desired to remain anonymous) complained to the homeowner's association that I was insane and building a hideously ugly giant box in my back yard. I came to the conclusion that the situation was probably perfect: any thing more grandiose and I would have crumbled under the stress. Anything less, and it would have been a trivial endeavor.

Florida - the lightning capital of the USA. Summer in Tallahassee is typically hot and humid with regular afternoon thundershowers. The afternoon thunderstorms come with lightning included. The picture below is of my neighbor's pine tree in his front yard. It was struck by lightning, which left a spiral split in the bark.


I have had two occasions where electronics in the observatory have been fried by nearby lightning strikes (despite having surge protectors). Mostly COM ports burn out. Here's a list:

  • Robofocus controllers (2x)
  • PC motherboard (COM port)
  • Sidereal Technology servo controller (2x)
  • Scope shaft encoder

Combined with software glitches, the system is always challenging (and expensive) to use!

Here is more information on the observatory, as well as images I have taken:



Yes, moved downtown, closer to work (can walk in if I feel motivated to do so; otherwise, drive is only 5 minutes). What to do about my telescope? I donated it to the Tallahassee astronomical society. After about 12 months of no telescope I had to try again. I purchased a Takahashi P2Z mount and 8" Celestron optical tube (both used on Astromart). The mount has a clockdrive on the RA axis, but he DEC axis is a tangent arm (i.e. manual). The drive electronics were not very good (although the RA gear is quite good). I purchased a new SiderealTechnology controller and retrofit it to the P2Z. I take it out to my kid's old high school (about 2 miles north of the old house) and its reasonably dark. The telescope is mounted on a portable tripod (two foam-lined cases holds scope & mount) and has a polar alignment scope built into the RA axis. I set up the scope as a Schmidt camera (with a CCD at the front of the scope where the secondary mirror normally is (this uses a lens called Fastar). This yields a wide angle, but fast (F/2.0) scope. I can take about 2 min unguided exposures with this set up. I usually take 20-30 and stack the best ones. Here is a picture of the scope & mount when the lab went to see a Shuttle launch. The secondary is still atached and the Schmidt camera is not installed.




With a grant generously provided by my wife Sachiko, I purchased 15.5 acres of swamp in a town called Shady Grove (population 176), located at 30°17’02”N lattitude, 83°35’51”W longitude (about 1 hour drive to the east of Tallahassee). Why do this? Well, the location is equidistant between the light pollution of Monticello, Madison and Perry, and away from the light pollution of Tallahassee. It is in the center of a nice dark sky location:


Here is an aerial view of what the lot looks like (the property line is shown – it is a triangle-shaped lot):



The treelines indicate where creeks are located that are drains for the swampy land. Here is a panorama of how the lot looked when I bought it: click for panorama!

The first step was to plan the location of the viewing site.  I decided to site it directly in the center of the upper area:


This upper site area was cleared (“bush hogged”). Click here for a panorama!


Then a gravel road was put in. Click here for panorama!


Then a 14’ x 14’ slab was poured:


From the center of the slab the local tree line extends no more than 10° above the horizon. It provides an excellent screen for minor sky glow from Perry (to the south) and Monticello (to the North West). In addition, it provides a wind break so that the air is fairly calm around the scope.  Click here for a panorama view!


Here is a picture of the very first night I set up:


An unanticipated stroke of good luck was that the diagonals of the concrete slab are aligned pretty closely to the N,S,E,W compass axes, so crude alignment of the scope is easy by just pointing it along one of the diagonals of the slab.

My first night out was a great success mixed with visceral terror.  The reason there is so little light pollution is that this place is pretty much in the middle of nowhere. It is adjacent to the Econfina river wildlife preserve. The contractor informed me that he saw bear tracks across the entrance of the driveway.  This would be a black bear. Anyway, after reading up on black bears it seemed likely that they would not want to come around areas with people unless food was available, or if they were crazed with rabies.  So, rule #1, don’t leave food out. Secondly, I cleared out about 4.5 acres, so nothing should be able to sneak up on me easily (granted, its pitch black at night). My first night out around 9:00 pm something I assume to be a coyote started howling; soon, others joined in.  I realized the howling surrounded me on 3 sides.  I reasoned that it was unlikely that a coyote would attack something as large as a person, and their ability to plan a coordinated pincers movement seemed doubtful; in any case, they went quiet. Shortly thereafter, something *really* large was walking through the small creek to the north of the property line. Judging from the cracking sound, small trees were in no way impeding its progress.  I believe it was traveling away from me, but I threw a few rocks in its general direction. However, my guess is that they came nowhere near the edge of the property (~200 feet away). Sans the stark terror, the evening was excellent. The milky way was clearly visible, there was no wind, and the visibility was great in all directions (i.e. nothing blocking the view in 360°). I imaged two galaxies and two nebulae – more photos than I had ever taken in one evening before.  At 3:30 a.m. I packed up to drive home. The contractor had put down an additional load of gravel on the road but had not yet smoothed it out.  On the drive in, I had momentum and had no problem driving over the gravel. However, on the way out (starting from a dead stop) I got stuck on a minor hill of gravel.  I dug out the gravel with my feet, and found some chunks of concrete to place under the tires. Long story short, after 40 min of struggling I managed to finally get out. Home by 5:30 am! I have subsequently purchased some bear spray; however, the directions say you have to wait until the charging bear is within 15 feet, then spray it directly in its face. Right.




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2001 Michael Blaber