Bringing the Stars to You: A Guide for Building a Home Observatory

Does the thought of seeing meteor showers, constellations and other planets interest you? If so, an at-home observatory might be closer in reach than you think. This guide will walk you through some of the steps needed to get started building your very own star gazing observatory.

Stargazing is a fun hobby that is constantly evolving as our understanding of the universe changes. Starting a stargazing hobby from your own home can be as simple as getting a telescope, or as complex as building your own permanent observatory.

People have been fascinated with how the stars work for hundreds of years. The practice of astronomy can be traced back to Mesopotamia, around 1000 BCE. Since then it has traveled through ancient Greece, the European renaissance, all the way up to the groundbreaking James Webb telescope, which has captured the highest resolution images of celestial bodies to date. 

You can pursue astronomy as a career and become a scientist, engineer, or theoretical physicist, or as a hobby from your very own home. The great thing about astronomy is that it is widely accessible, and ever-changing. With basic equipment and understanding, you can start watching the stars.

Astronomy Basics

To get started with astronomy, there are some terms you’ll need to know. While there are pages of astronomical terms you can learn while pursuing this hobby, to start, you just need the basics: 

  • Planet: A celestial body that has an apparent motion of its own. 
  • Star: A fixed luminous point in the night sky. Stars are large, remote, incandescent bodies. 
  • Moon: A natural satellite of a planet that moves with the planet’s gravitational pull. 
  • Comet: A celestial object consisting of ice and dust that, when near the sun, has a “tail” of gas. 
  • Asteroid: A small rocky body orbiting the sun. Asteroids may become comets or meteoroids. 
  • Meteoroid: Lumps of rock that have broken through the earth’s atmosphere. Meteoroids can break off of comets and asteroids, and can create a meteor shower, which is several trails of light caused by the rocks burning up upon entry into earth’s orbit, 
  • Eclipse: An eclipse is the complete or partial obscuring of one celestial body by another. This is a celestial event. 
  • Celestial event: A celestial event is any astronomical phenomenon that involves one or more celestial objects, such as planets and meteors. An example of a celestial event is a meteor shower. 
  • Galaxy: A galaxy is a mass collection of dust, gasses, stars, and celestial bodies held together by a gravitational pull. The earth is in the Milky Way galaxy. Galaxies are often distinguishable from each other by the spirals. 
  • Solar system: A solar system is a system of celestial bodies that orbit around a sun or sun-like star. Our solar system is made up of eight planets.
  • Nebula: A nebula is a collection of gasses and dust often called a “star nursery” as this is where new stars are “born.” The gasses and debris in these nebulae often provide the fuel for new stars to come into being.

This is a collection of some of the things that you might observe, or need to understand to contextualise what you observe. You can consult the many other glossaries of astronomical terms available online, or in print, to find out more.


What Sky-watching Tools Do You Need?

You may think you need a laundry list of equipment to take up astronomy as a hobby, but that’s not the case. You really only need three basic items to get started:

  • Binoculars;
  • Telescope;
  • Star chart or app.

You can invest in other tools, such as different mounts, refractors, and cameras. More advanced equipment will help you see clearer or farther, but that doesn’t necessarily make it better than a basic telescope set-up. The best equipment you can have is whatever helps you enjoy the stars, in whatever capacity you want.

What Can You See From Home?

The different celestial bodies you can see from your home may vary depending on where you are, the time of the year, and the strength of your equipment. You can expect to see some of the following:

  • The solar system;
  • Meteor showers;
  • Constellations;
  • Planets;
  • Satellites.

Depending on the time of year you may be able to see other events that only happen once a year, such as an eclipse.

space meteor shower

How to Stargaze in Cities?

Stargazing in cities poses more challenges than in rural areas, because of the influx of people. There is also pollution and skyscrapers to contend with when you’re trying to get a clear view of the sky. Here are some tips for stargazing in densely populated areas:

  • Avoiding light pollution: There are two ways that you can avoid light pollution. You can either exit the city and go out toward more residential or rural areas. Or, in some cases, you may be able to get above light glare, such as on the roof of a tall building. If you decide to go this route, be sure you have permission to use the roof and don’t leave any litter behind you.
  • Avoiding smog: Avoiding smog is similar to avoiding light pollution, as you can either go up or out. Smog-like conditions may also be seasonal, such as marine layers in coastal cities, so you may plan your stargazing around times when this is low.
  • Checking the weather: Checking the weather is a great way to give you a heads-up on visibility for stargazing. Not only will it tell you cloud cover, but most weather apps also have air quality indexes which can let you know about visibility due to smog or pollutants.
  • Avoiding crowded areas: You’ll typically want to avoid crowded areas when stargazing, for a variety of reasons. Excess light reduces visibility, crowded spaces can make it harder to set up equipment, and many people prefer a more serene atmosphere when stargazing. Again, you can choose to either go out to more rural areas, or find high ground. Keeping an eye on the tourist season in your city can give you an idea of when places you might normally go to stargaze, such as parks, may become crowded.

While there are more challenges to stargazing in cities, it isn’t impossible. Some cities may still be a good place to see constellations and celestial events.

telescope in city

Types of At-home Observatories

Creating your at-home observatory can increase the frequency and accuracy of your stargazing. It can also help mitigate common problems stargazers face, like crowded areas and light pollutants, as well as give your home increased character and utility. You don’t have to be an advanced stargazer to create a functional observatory, as there are several, scalable types you could choose from.

Temporary Observatories

A temporary observatory can be taken down and moved. This can be a great option for someone who doesn’t have the resources for a permanent observatory, or likes to spend a lot of time outdoors stargazing. Temporary observatories are largely specialized tents, like ground blinds, or wind baffles. Anything that isn’t a permanent fixture on your property, but can house and protect your equipment from the elements, could become a temporary observatory.

Permanent Observatories

Permanent observatories are ones you cannot take down or move easily from your property. These can be additions to your home, or separate structures, depending on your wants and resources. The two most common permanent observatories for at-home use are:

  • Retractable roof observatory: A retractable roof observatory is exactly what it sounds like — an observatory where the roof retracts to reveal open air. This is a favorable permanent observatory, as it gives you the clearest view of the sky. If you live somewhere with heavy rain or snow, you’ll want to make sure your retractable roof is equipped to handle the weight of these things, fitted out with proper run-off channels, and sealed tightly to prevent any internal damage.
  • Rotating observatory: A rotating observatory isn’t as complex as it sounds. This is an observatory where part or all of it can rotate to view the sky at different angles. There are many ways to DIY this kind of observatory, or you can contract it from a professional. This is a favorable observatory type because it allows you to view the sky from all different angles, without having to move your equipment.

You can customize your at-home observatory with features to your exact needs and wants, but these are some basic ideas that can help you get started.

Why Build an At-home Observatory?

There are many benefits to building your own observatory. Especially if you are an avid stargazer, having your observatory can be incredible for 24/7 accessibility. Other benefits of having an at-home observatory include:

  • Ease of access: Having a private observatory on your property vastly increases your access to stargazing. It cuts down on travel time, admittance costs, and you can stargaze any time you want. This can be an incredible boon, as certain celestial events happen late at night, and into early morning hours.
  • Setting yourself up for success: With increased access, an at-home observatory sets you up for success by increasing the frequency of your stargazing. This can include benefits to recognizing celestial bodies such as constellations, seeing more celestial events, and overall improving your astronomy knowledge.
  • Less time investment later on: As mentioned, an at-home observatory saves you huge time spent on traveling to ideal stargazing areas, and having to pay any fees to enter those areas. While it is an initial investment, with frequent use it does pay for itself over time.
  • Multi-purpose area: Depending on the size of your structure, your observatory can be used as a multi-purpose area. It is a great space to double as an office, yoga or meditation area, library, and more. Be sure that if you do decide to use this as a multi-purpose area, your activities won’t interfere with each other. This means being mindful of noise levels, mess, and sharing the space with others.

Building additions onto your home or property can add character and make the space feel more distinctly you. It can also increase the overall property value, depending on the type of structure and the overall utility.


Building Regulations and Approval

Before you can start building a new permanent structure, even on your own property, you’ll need to ensure you’re following all the local regulations. This includes having any necessary permits and approvals from zoning, leaseholds or commonholds, and other local bodies. The approval process to start building will look different depending on where you live. If you’re hiring a contractor or building team, then you’ll need to look into things like insurance before you can start building, to protect the safety of the workers, your property, and yourself.

Location and Placement

Location and placement are incredibly important factors when building an observatory, even a rotating one. You will want to have a view of the sky in all directions, meaning you won’t want to build in an area with heavy tree cover. Additionally, you’ll want to avoid any glare from windows, lights, or other buildings.

You’ll also want to consider how the seasons may affect your view — will an extra three to six inches of snow on someone’s roof impair your view? You might try to observe the sky with a temporary observatory in different areas of your property in advance of choosing the place for your permanent setup. This will help you determine the most optimal place on your property for year-round stargazing.

Design Considerations

Along with getting the correct approvals and choosing your location, you’ll want to make design considerations that set you up for success. This includes not only increasing your ability to pursue astronomy, but ensuring that any equipment is safe and secured, and that you avoid common mistakes. Some design considerations you should make during the building and planning process include:

  • Security of equipment: One of the most important considerations when creating your observatory is the security of your equipment. Astronomy equipment can be incredibly expensive, and a pain to replace if damaged or stolen. Taking the proper precautions to install locks, proper sealing and insulation, and other protections for your interior and equipment is an important element of designing your observatory.
  • Protection from bugs and animals: This is important not only for your equipment’s safety, but for your own safety. Bugs and animals can cause physical damage to equipment, as well as spread disease and cause physical damage to yourself. Making sure doors, windows, and any other access points are properly sealed, both during construction and again after each use, is an easy way to ensure critters can’t make their way into your observatory.
  • Sufficient power sources: Make sure you’ll have enough power in your observatory to power lights, equipment, and outlets you need. This can be done by attaching to the existing electricity grid, or obtaining a dedicated generator. There are pros and cons to each method, so be sure to consult your contractor.
  • Adequate storage and “moving-around” space: This is a consideration for both safety and practicality. Storage and moving-around space not only make your observatory more comfortable, but can prevent things like fire hazards and keep the space tidy.
  • Future plans for your property: Another important consideration when building any new structure is future plans for your property. If you plan on selling your home at any time, you’ll want to make sure your observatory is easily multi-purpose. This will increase property value, and improve your ability to find buyers. Using a design like a retractable roof may be a great option for flexibility.

Make all these considerations within the context of your budget, as well as the time you can or want to spend on this project.

Designing a Home Observatory
With a Shipping Container

Another option for designing a versatile at-home observatory is buying a shipping container. A used shipping container is a great option for sustainability and your budget. Shipping containers can be customized with observatory features, such as retractable roof panels, windows, and independent power. If you’re interested in DIY, a shipping container observatory can make a great project to learn and grow your skills, without having to start from scratch.

You’ll also want to consider how the seasons may affect your view — will an extra three to six inches of snow on someone’s roof impair your view? You might try to observe the sky with a temporary observatory in different areas of your property in advance of choosing the place for your permanent setup. This will help you determine the most optimal place on your property for year-round stargazing.

Additionally, shipping containers offer plenty of storage for equipment, if you want a separate observatory — 20-foot models can be particularly good as storage units.

Fostering a Child’s Interest in Astronomy

Astronomy is not only a great solo hobby, but it can be a great hobby to get your kids involved in. It can foster curiosity and an interest in science. Having an at-home observatory is one way to make astronomy accessible to your child. Other ways include:

  • Astronomy activities: Space-themed activities that incorporate science, art, and spatial awareness can be a great way to foster your child’s interest in the stars. These activities could include building a model solar system, experimenting with gravity, or identifying constellations.
  • Space documentaries: There are multiple documentaries available about space, and relevant figures in space travel. These can be great edutainment for slightly older kids and introduce them to the importance of understanding the universe.
  • Space camps: For kids with an invested interest in space, there are space and astronomy summer camps. You can look online for camps in your area, or check out national camps, such as Space School UK.
  • Attending space events: Space events could be small, local celestial events, like meteor showers, all the way up to rocket launches. Local events can make for a great weekend activity, and visiting national space centers is a fun family vacation.

Astronomy activities are a great way to introduce your child to STEM. These activities are scalable as your child gets older, and may even turn into an eventual career in science or space.


Astronomy Apps and Websites

The following websites and apps can help increase your understanding of astronomy, as well as provide resources for your star gazing.

  • HubbleSite: This is a gallery of images taken from the Hubble Space Telescope. This site also offers news on current space events, as well as astronomy videos.
  • Stellarium: This is an app or web browser that offers a 3D star map of your location. It can help you identify constellations, planets, and other celestial bodies in the sky around you.
  • Astronomy Picture of the Day: This is a site managed by NASA that provides a daily picture of a celestial body or event, and an explanation of the picture by an astronomy professional.
  • Science Daily Astronomy: This is a hub for all news related to astronomy, celestial events, and other research news.
  • Sky Guide: This app allows you to point your phone camera at the sky to help identify stars and celestial bodies.

The U.K. Space Agency also has a wealth of information for astronomy enthusiasts, and is a must-visit site for stargazers.

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