The In’s and Out’s of Observatories4 min read

Most of what we know about space doesn’t come from man going to space. Much of our knowledge is obtained here, on the ground. Of course, being in space affords us some luxuries that we can never get on Earth, such as a lack of air interference. That doesn’t change the fact that we simply don’t have the manpower or ability to keep a large number of people in orbit for extended periods of time.

However, we do the best we can when working from the confines of our planet. Thanks to some remarkable breakthroughs, we’ve managed to find out a great deal about space from Earth. We didn’t need highly advanced technology to discover large portions of our solar system. Even a backyard telescope can make out the rings on Saturn or see a comet whizzing by.

As much as we can learn about our galactic neighborhood with regular telescopes, it is more difficult to learn about what lies beyond our solar system. This requires specialized equipment that can pick up the tiniest movements of stars that may be hundreds of light years away. There’s a number of factors that go into making this possible.

Location, Location, Location

You’ve all heard the saying — the top three rules of real estate is location, location and location. Well, the same can be said of observatories. There are two main rules to the best locations for these work places; light pollution and atmospheric turbulence.

Light pollution is when the lights from cars, homes, buildings and street lights “pollute” the surrounding atmosphere with light. Similar to smog, light pollution extends far beyond the immediate area and makes it difficult to make out the fainter stars in the night sky. Finding places where it’s darkest is a high priority for night-time viewing.

Atmospheric turbulence may sound like something you’ll run into when on a long flight, but it’s actually a problem that astronomers have to deal with on a daily basis. Did you ever wonder why starts twinkle in the sky? It’s because of the turbulence in the atmosphere. Basically, the thickness of the sky varies constantly, which creates distortions in our perceptions. Astronomers combat this by building observatories where the atmosphere is thinner, which means at a higher elevation.

The Building Process of Observatories

Once you’ve got a good spot picked out, it’s important to take a look at how you’re going to actually build an observatory. There are generally three aspects to this. The first will be the actual building that the observatory is part of, the second will be the telescope, and the third will be the dome.

The building seems common, but it still has some special requirements. One of the factors is that this will be the support system for the dome. As a result, it needs to be able to withstand a great deal of weight. One way to do this is to use post tensioned concrete in the construction. The additional strength will help the building withstand both the weight and the movement of the dome.

The dome of the observatory is where things start to get a little more complicated. Most of the time, the dome will be able to open and close, as well as rotate 360 degrees, to gain an optimal view of the sky at any given time. The opening is called a shutter and operates like a camera lens, but on a much larger scale.

Lastly, there is the telescope itself. This is basically the kit and caboodle of the observatory. Without it, it’s basically a giant sunroof. The telescope has three main parts: the eyepiece, the tube, and the lens. Out of everything, the lens is the most important. Its job is to capture light. For obvious reasons, this is more difficult to do at night, which is why the lenses are made so large. The bigger the lens, the more light it can capture, which results in seeing farther distances.

Whether you’re dreaming of venturing into outer space one day or if you simply want to be amazed by what we have the ability to learn, observatories are a fantastic way to gain entry into space, while keeping your feet on the ground.


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