q The Baker Observatory at The Shooting Star Ranch
Digital Imaging of the Universe

The Baker Observatory
at the Shooting Star Ranch

- Matthew T. Russell  

Astrophotography gives you a different perspective of the night sky.

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Welcome to the Baker Observatory!

The Baker Observatory sets at an elevation of 7,425 feet at the Shooting Star Ranch in Black Forest, Colorado.

This has been work in progress for the last several years with countless hours of planning and re-planning. Finally, it has become reality!

Looking back, I can’t believe the sleep I’ve lost over this project. There were countless nights of tossing and turning while the “what-ifs” and “what-about-this” scenarios spun through my head. On the bright side, it helped pass the time (on multiple occasions) while driving through Nebraska.

I found this project so fascinating because it is such a simple design, but at the same time very complex.

To begin with, many of you may wonder how I came up with the observatory name? The name, Baker, is my grandmother's last name. I was born on July 22, 1969, two days after the first moon landing. She's never let me forget that, and I think it's one of reasons why I've been interested in space my whole life. Third, she is a firm believer that one must follow his/her dreams, no matter how far it may take you away from home. She's been a true inspiration, and I felt the name was appropriate.

In the following text, I will outline the steps that I took to make my observatory a reality. If you are planning such a project, I hope it helps your thought process.

Stage 1: Setting Goals & Determining Your Needs

My main goal was to build an observatory that was completely suitable for CCD imaging and remote operation. In my brief CCD life, I’ve found that equipment comes and goes very quickly, therefore, my design had to include expansion capabilities for the future. It took me a while to come up with this list, but eventually it was completed.

  • Permanent. My equipment now weighs in excess of 250 pounds and takes an average of 3 hours a night to setup and tear down. I wanted something that could be turned on at the flip of a switch.
  • Protection from the elements. Colorado can have heavy snows, strong winds, and extremely hot days. No matter what the condition, I wanted to make sure my equipment was protected.
  • Cool internal temperature. Stable and cool temperatures are very important to CCD imaging. It was important to me that the structure remained close to the ambient outside air temperature to minimize cool-down time.
  • Isolated pier. With CCD imaging, it is very important that I had some sort of pier that was completely isolated from the rest of the structure, thus, ensuring a stable and firm platform for those long exposure runs.
  • Ample room for growth. Because my equipment changes quite frequently, I wanted to make sure I could have some flexibility with the design to accommodate for larger or smaller instruments.
  • Remote operation. My house is approximately 450 feet from the observatory; plus I like to spend summers at our cabin in Cross Lake, MN. It was absolutely necessary to control this telescope from anywhere in the world.
  • Electrical organization. I wanted to make sure I wouldn’t be tripping on power cords once my observing session started. The biggest bummer is when you are just about done with an imaging run, and you accidentally trip on a power cord, and the cord comes flying out from the socket.
  • Low heat retention. Anything that retained heat and released it slowly throughout the night was off limits. Cement slabs, rocks, stucco and tar roof shingles were all left out for good reasons.
  • 10 degrees from southern horizon. Visibility higher than 10 degrees was important. Being that low in the sky for CCD imaging is far from optimal, but there are just too many gems in the southern sky to pass up.

Once I came up with this list, it was evident to me that for my needs a fiberglass dome structure was the best solution. I decided on a 10-foot Home Dome by Technical Innovations (http://www.homedome.com) and Digital DomeWorks, a software program that completely automates dome control. I researched many different dome manufacturers, and based on the reputation of this company, I felt I couldn't go wrong.

Stage 2: Conceptual Design

Now that my goals were defined, I had numerous ideas and visualizations of what I wanted to build. The first place I started was a free book by Technical Innovations (http://www.homedome.com) called "At Home in a Dome". It talks about everything you've ever wanted to know about building a home observatory. Another excellent resource is the Amateur Astronomical Observatories (http://www.seds.org/billa/obs/obslist.html) page maintained by Bill Arnett. There are examples of hundreds of observatory designs such as domes, roll-off roofs and custom structures.

Stage 3: Knowing Your Limitations

One thing I came to terms with is the fact that I am not very good at building things, unless the pieces are already there and cut out. You know, like a plastic model. Therefore, I had my builder, Len Anderson, build the structure. I wanted to make sure this building was done right, otherwise the whole effort would have been a waste of time and of course...money.

If you're going to have someone else build your observatory, you also must realize that the builder may have some limitations as well. Hopefully, these aren't structural (if they are, find another builder), but not understanding some standard observatory concepts. For example, our builder felt that a 12 inch isolated pier would suit my needs just fine. It ended up being 24x24 inches thick with a base of 36x36x36 square.

He also felt that pouring a cement slab would be more advantageous than building a deck structure. I quickly outlined why that wasn't a good idea. I desired something that didn't oscillate or create vibrations if someone was walking on it. I also didn't want a cement pad because cement releases heat slowly throughout the night and could have an adverse effect on seeing conditions.

I made sure my plans were drawn out to the best of my ability. Simple things for astronomers, like finding True North can be a little challenging for someone who doesn’t know the hobby. Obviously, to mess up your pier alignment with True North could be a challenging obstacle to overcome. Because I wasn’t in town when the pier was actually poured, I provided my builder with a compass and instructions on how to align to True North. It paid off; he got it exactly right.

For those who are interested in seeing the actual plans I created for my builder, visit the following web address: http://www.telescopes.cc/bakerobsplans.htm.

Stage 4: Finding the Location

Our land in Colorado is 40 acres, but believe it or not, finding a good location was probably one of the harder tasks. Prior to its final location, I came up with at least 10 different sites. Some were close to the house - some were on the complete opposite side of the property. Some were on high ground - some on low. Some were in treeless areas - some were not. Dilemmas…dilemmas…dilemmas.I decided there were four main issues that were confronting me, each of which is listed below:

  • Power. In several of my site selections, power would have been run approximately 1,000 feet from the main house. The longer the run, the more expensive.
  • Security. The property and surrounding area is very safe, but it’s always good to be cautious. The closer to the house, the better.
  • Connectivity. Because I want to be able to operate this observatory remotely, from inside the house or from the Internet, network connectivity was an issue. 300 feet is the maximum distance with CAT5 cable without a signal repeater.
  • Environmental protection. There are many trees on the property that have a trunk diameter of 3 feet. Obviously, I wanted to make sure I spared as many large and healthy trees as possible.

I settled on an area of high ground that lies approximately 450 feet from the main house. I have already tested a wireless network connection from the house to the observatory and it works just fine. It did require some signal boosters, but since it is pretty much line-of-site, it wasn’t much of an issue.

The power line has been run, with a low-voltage line for a security system hookup. If need be, I can add additional wires through a PVC pipe that runs directly up to the observatory.

In order to reduce the need for removing trees, I decided to have my excavator build a 4-5 foot compacted mound. This spared a lot of trees and got me to the 10 degrees above the horizon I desired. You’d really be surprised at how much more visibility you have by rising up 5 feet.

Stage 5: Watching it All Come Together

The exciting part was when construction actually started. The dome arrived, which I was able to assemble myself. The structure was built exactly to my specs. Now all I have to do is paint the outside and plant some grass.

It was a lot of planning and preparation, but well worth it. Because the design was thought through, there were no changes during the actual construction and the process went smoothly.


View facing Southwest. My goal was to be able to view from 10 degrees above the horizon. To spare some trees, I built a mound for the observatory. It stands approximately 5 feet tall.

View facing North. Construction of walls.

View facing Southwest. Wall construction is complete. Dome Base Ring is installed.

View facing South.

Caulking the seams in the dome.

Copyright 2003, Matthew T. Russell. All rights reserved.