My Observatory

Now relocated to its new home near Vanderpool, Texas

The Von Braun Photographic Station is named after a boyhood hero of mine: rocket pioneer Dr. Wernher von Braun. His unofficial motto, as popularized by a Hollywood movie, was "I aim at the stars". Since I too aim at the stars with my Schmidt camera, it seemed fitting to honor my memory of Dr. von Braun by naming my modest observatory after him.

Observatory wide view

A panoramic view of my observatory on the evening of November 20, 2003, the last time it was used operationally.

This view of the observatory was taken from a nearby abandoned deer blind tower (which I leave in place as a sort of lightning rod). The observatory is not on the highest part of the ridge because that area is on the neighbor's property. But that area is to the east where the very weak light polution dome from San Antonio lies, so I am not interested in that portion of the sky anyway.

CLICK HERE for a larger 3000 pixel-wide image of the above panorama.

NEW! Observatory building fatally damaged by weather!

CLICK HERE to see damage and the building's final night of use.

For 13 years, my observatory was located near Comfort, Texas, in the Texas Hill Country an hour's drive north of San Antonio. The site was "borrowed land", and on October 31, 1998, the observatory was deactivated. Recent changes in the ownership of the property, and the appearance of new subdivisions in the Comfort area, made it time to move on to another darker location. Thanks to the generosity of Fred and Jeralyn Hathorn of Vanderpool, Texas, the facility is now in operation again under truly dark skies. The Hathorn's have allowed me to relocate the facility on a ridge above a beautiful valley on their ranch. Although the observatory is an additional 45 minute drive further away, it is now be under Texas Star Party-like dark sky. The move and subsequest renovation of the dome is now complete and hopefully the facility will see another 13 years of trouble-free service.

CLICK HERE to see some construction photos

Robert and observatoryObservatory side view
Although it looks a little crowded in the top panoramic image, the
observatory is actually in a fairly wide-open area with plenty of room
for parking several vehicles. The observatory site is at a 2200 foot altitude,
some 400 feet above the valley about 100 yards beyond the observatory
The three panels on the left of the dome open the observing slit while the
structure extending to the right of the dome is actually astorage area. A
folding camping cot for sleeping is hung in the top while the lower area
houses storage shelves. The structure protruding from the observatory wall
is storage area and a photographic dark box for film handeling.

Observatory front Observatory rear
A view of me in front (south side) of the building gives a size
perspective. The twin bands circling the base of the dome are
repairs of damage sustained by the base of the dome during the
200 mile road trip to move the observatory.
A view of the rear (north side) of the observatory shows the dome
extension used as a storage space.

My observatory is a simple eight-foot square building with a homemade dome atop it. Having become used to operating under the four-meter dome at Limber Observatory, I was not happy with the idea of being hemmed in under a tiny dome at my own observatory. Realistically, the building had to be limited to eight feet on a side to simplify construction and the transportation of the building's modular pieces from my driveway to the observatory site. This would traditionally limit the dome to no more than about 7.5 feet in diameter, far too small for my likes. After some calculation, I determined that a nine-foot dome would work quite nicely. The additional 1.5 foot diameter dramatically increased the internal volume of the dome and moved the base of the dome walls far enough from the center of the building that I could stand up straight anywhere in the building. A nine-foot dome on an eight-foot building may sound top heavy, but it works well. The dome overhangs the middle of each wall by six inches and a crescent-shaped semi-circle insert blocks heavy winds and rain from pushing up under the dome.

Each wall is 4 X 8 feet and is a separate modular component made of 2 X 4 framing and 3/8-inch plywood inside and out. All four walls bolt together atop a separate floor assembly and are topped by a "roof structure" that acts as a dome mount. The four-foot-high walls make for a rather short door, but having to duck on entry is the only real inconvenience. Inside, it is quite roomy. Each of the six building components, the floor, four walls, and roof are self-contained, allowing the entire observatory to be assembled onsite in just two hours. That belies the fact that constructing the building and its nine-foot dome actually took me two years of spare time work in my driveway.

The dome has a 16-rib frame made from a double layer of laminated 3/4-inch plywood. The ribs were cut with a band saw and jig I made which would pivot a 4 X 8 sheet of plywood under the band saw at the proper distance to cut the rib arcs at just the right curvature. The process sounds more complicated than it was and it worked beautifully. After the dome frame was assembled, it was covered with 1/8-inch Massonite. The dome rotates on a ring made of four-inch channel iron that was rolled and welded by Alamo Iron Works in San Antonio. The channel is attached upside-down to the dome to prevent it from filling with debris. It rotates on a set of eight fixed heavy-duty casters. The dome slot is three feet wide. To simplify construction, I made the slot door in three pieces. The top part slides back on rails, the lower part hinges downward, and the middle parts simply lifts off and is set aside. To insure the dome will still be on the observatory the next time I use it, the dome is locked down with three stout turnbuckles when the facility is not in use. Although south Texas is very humid and often subject to torrential rains, the dome has survived quite well for 14 years. An annual coat of the best titanium dioxide white exterior house paint I can find seems to maintain it quite well.

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