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Far, far away: Remote astrophotography!

Many of us have certainly thought about building a backyard observatory at some point in the hobby. Ease of having a permanent setup is definitely one of the best ways to increase your comfort level when doing long imaging runs. In this article we explore the possibilities and benefits building an observatory can bring to the astronomy hobby and what to consider when automating your setup. We reached out to master astrophotographer Jari Saukkonen, for his expertise and tips for building your own remote observatory!

Operating an observatory remotely brings about fundamental shifts in the hobby. It enables capturing images on a more extensive and frequent basis, even on workdays, facilitating larger projects. Also it leaves plenty of time that you can spend under the stars without any imaging equipment if you wish to do visual astronomy or just enjoy the glorious night sky.

What has building your own observatory taught you?

“A running gag that I often tell is that this is a good hobby to learn woodworking and pouring concrete. The planning and building of our local remote observatory was truly a learning process since none of us had any previous construction experience. We did lots of research, but I think we usually erred on the side of making something more heavy or sturdy because we didn’t have the experience to know where we could cut corners. I’m very happy with the end result, our local observatory has been running for 7 years now and properly maintained it’ll serve for years to come."

Sculptor Galaxy imaged remotely by Jari Saukkonen

Design for automation

First, before starting construction decide on the eventual level of autonomy you want to aim for, even if you don’t immediately go all-in with automation. Keeping the automation in mind will help you make the design decisions that are easier to automate, require less moving parts and sensors. Observatory domes are a classic design but they are inherently more complex to operate and maintain than a roll-off-roof style observatory.

What challenges have emerged from automating your observatories?

“I enjoy challenges and as Kennedy put it, “— not because it’s easy, but because it’s hard”. In this hobby you can raise the bar arbitrarily high so you will always have the next challenge to tackle. And since this is a hobby it’s as much about the journey as reaching the goals.”

The most important feature of the observatory is to keep your expensive equipment safe from the weather, Saukkonen emphasizes. Explore different scenarios and plan accordingly:

• Weather Scenarios
• Power and Network Issues
• Unresponsive equipment

Some designs are inherently more safe than others, for example if you are able to close the observatory regardless of your telescope orientation helps a lot. Also a back up power supply, UPS, might come in handy if you experience a power-outage in the middle of an imaging run.

Fighting Dragons of Ara is one of the incredible images taken by Saukkonen from his second remote observatory in Chile

Rewarding outcome

Once finished, an automated observatory can bring large amounts of data from the comfort of your home. You can leave the often bulky equipment permanently in a dedicated building doing it’s thing while you can choose to enjoy the night sky without the usual time constraints of normal astrophotography. On the journey there you will learn to think differently about clear skies – even a small gap in the clouds can be utilized for imaging with ease. Building the observatory can also be a very rewarding and educative challenge to overcome!

“In each and every image I take I’m still baffled at the detail and quality that we as amateurs are able to attain. After a night of imaging a new object I almost always do a quick processing of the acquired data just to see what is out there. Once I have the final data in my hands I usually spend a lot of time just exploring and taking in all the details that were revealed.
I’m also very interested in the astrophysical processes we are able to witness in our images. Traces from the entire stellar lifecycle from newborn stars to stars long gone are visible, once you know where to look."

A deep view of the Trifid Nebula

With enthusiasm and passion for the skies one can embrace the challenges, relish the rewards, and embark on a journey that not only enhances their imaging capabilities but also deepens their connection with the wonders of the universe. Keep looking up!