When my dome opens, I see stars

Being an enthusiast for all things astronomically observatory, I swooned last week when I read that “a growing number of Americans [have been] incorporating observatories into new or existing homes.”
Leading to the question: are suburban homes the new future of astronomy?

[Images: Michelle Litvin for The New York Times].

According to the New York Times, “manufacturers of observatory domes report increasing sales to homeowners, and new residential communities are being developed with observatories as options in house plans.”

Most home observatories have between $10,000 and $40,000 in equipment, including telescopes, computers, refractors, filters and tracking mechanisms, according to astronomy equipment retailers. The total budget for an observatory can range from $50,000 to more than $500,000, depending on how technologically advanced the equipment and the size and complexity of the structure.

As one home observatory-owning certified public accountant in Chicago told the newspaper: “Now, if I want to get up at 3 a.m. and look at something, I just open the shutter.”

[Images: Erik Davies for The New York Times. On the right, we see a starburst cluster, courtesy of NASA].

Adding an astro-dome to your home requires some interesting architectural renovations, we read – mostly structural.
For instance, each of these hi-tech telescopes requires “a dedicated foundation so it’s not subject to the vibrations transmitted by people walking around in the building,” one manufacturer points out. “This usually involves elevating the instrument on a discrete concrete pier. A telescope mount is bolted to the pier and the mount is motorized so it rotates the telescope in sync with the dome.”
Concrete piers, home domes, private suburban observatories – I think it’s the way forward. Imagine growing up in a planetarium!
You’d go to sleep at night watching renamed constellations drift slowly over your bed.

[Image: Northern Cygnus as photographed by Robert Gendler].

In fact, on a semi-related note, I’ve been wondering lately what might happen to Christianity – or to Islam, or to Hinduism – if it turned its houses of worship into observatories and planetaria: contemporary religious architecture as a physical participant in the planetary sciences.
Your local church has a huge telescope installed above the altar, focusing on the rings of Saturn or on scenes of distant star birth; you take Communion while watching the moons of Jupiter. Or that mosque up the street is also a planetarium, hosting nightly shows about redshift and globular clusters. There are lines out the door and people reading Carl Sagan.
Would that reinvigorate a failing religion? Your copy of the Koran comes complete with starcharts. The Book of Revelation gets rewritten, full of references to Bose-Einstein condensation and the inflationary universe.
The Vatican itself installs the world’s largest radio telescope inside a grove full of old stone statuary. As a joke, priests call it St. Radio – and, in a thousand years, the name sticks: children are brought up praying to this lost saint of astral frequencies.
In any case, that wouldn’t even be new in the history of religious architecture: as J.L. Heilbron points out in his book The Sun in the Church, some cathedrals were actually built – or at least later used, after minor alteration – as “heliometers”: measuring labs for the passage of the sun.
These “church observatories” were intially put to use, we read, in determining the most accurate date for Easter:

The key parameter in the Easter calculation was the time of return of the sun to the same equinox. The most powerful way of measuring this cycle was to lay out a “merdian line” from south to north in a large dark building with a hole in its roof and observe how long the sun’s noon image took to return to the same spot on the line. The most convenient such buildings were cathedrals; they came large and dark and needed only a hole in the roof and a rod in the floor to serve as solar observatories.

Heilbron specifically mentions the Florentine church of Santa Maria Novella –

[Image: The Church of Santa Maria Novella, photographed by Flickr-user lorZ – that pillar standing in front is actually a gnomon].

– but there are at least a dozen other examples in the book.
Heilbron also tells us about several “lost meridians” that were damaged – even utterly erased – by later building repairs; there was one such meridian inside the church of Saint Sulpice.
But I can’t get enough of this stuff!
In fact, let’s forget cathedrals and re-imagine secular urban infrastructure – parking lots and railways and police stations and sewers – as somehow astronomically integrated: the modern city as inhabitable heliometer, from its skyscrapers to its sidewalks.
This almost reminds me of Lisa Jardine’s discovery, while writing her biography of Sir Christopher Wren, that the so-called London Monument, designed in 1677 by Wren and Robert Hooke, was actually designed as “a unique, hugely ambitious, [and] vastly oversized scientific instrument.” It used “strategically placed vents and vantage points,” she found, to measure atmospheric pressure.
It was not a building at all, in other words, but a rogue piece of laboratory equipment.
But I digress.
On some future night when I can’t sleep, I’ll just crawl out of bed and walk across an unlit garden into a large and silent dome out back where the roof cracks open with the help of hidden motors, and I’ll look up through lenses at ancient laceworks of light, tracking moons, taking photographs of universal radiation, writing down the size of the cosmos… and I’ll post my results on BLDGBLOG.
The age of the home observatory has barely begun.

• • •

Recommended (though rather dry): The Sun in the Church by J.L. Heilbron

Earlier on BLDGBLOG: The Heliocentric Pantheon: An Interview with Walter Murch, The architecture of solar alignments, and Roadhenge

9 thoughts on “When my dome opens, I see stars”

  1. Santa Maria Novella (the church in the picture) is in Florence. The church in Bologna whth the Heliometer is San Petronio

  2. Reading Tom Bissell‘s excellent, highly recommended book, Chasing the Sea. In it, he talks of the astrolabe built on the edge of Uzbekistan’s legendary Samarkand by Ulugbeg (also spelled Ulugh Beg), a grandson of Timur the Lame (aka Tamerlane). Ulugbeg discovered some 200 stars in his life and brought astronomy back into the madrasas.

    From a summary Ulugbeg bio: “Built on a circular foundation more than 262.5 ft (80 m) in diameter, the Samarkand observatory’s three-stories rose to a height of 108 ft (33 m). A trench 8 ft (2.5 m) wide and 36 ft (11 m) deep at its lowest point was excavated to accommodate the huge meridian arc that was to be the observatory’s main instrument. When completed, the arc extended from the trench’s deepest point to just below the observatory roof. Its radius was 131 ft (40 m), making it the largest astronomical instrument of the fifteenth century.”

    Interesting, no?

    As an aside, while perusing the heartbreakingly wonderful bookshelves of an antique store in Pasadena, CA., I ran across a multi-volume set of books about the world’s architecture. I think there were at least ten volumes in the set, all in excellent condition. Of course I immediately thought of you. 😉

  3. Can you elaborate on that Christopher Wren story? I’m frankly too lazy to wade through 600-odd pages of biography to find out more.

  4. Apparently Safeway sells a fully computerized equatorial mount for $600, where ‘fully computerized’ means that “when you first set it up, you point it at the three brightest stars you can see, and it then automatically works out where it is and which way it’s oriented.”

    Or you can go for SkyScout, which is “the size of a small video camera, with an internal GPS, magnetic compass, and altitude angle sensor, plus a (non-magnified) viewfinder with crosshairs. You point it at anything in the sky, with no setup at all (apart from waiting for a GPS lock) and it tells you what it is – on screen or with voice commentary. Alternatively, you select whatever you want to find from the target list, and it gives you up/down/left/right directions to find it. It’s also got a mount for attaching to a tripod, or on the side of any telescope.” Source.

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