The Zen of the Observatory

 

 

You cannot travel the path until you have become the path itself.

- Buddha

It seems like every activity has a gaol, every journey a destination.  And I will certainly admit to being very goal-oriented in most of what I do.  But astronomy is a bit unique in that it has two very different faces.  The goal driven, technically challenging activity of astrophotography, and the absorbing transcendency of gazing into the heavens with your own eyes and mind.  The observatory plays a key role in each.

In the true, seemingly contradictory, nature of Zen, the observatory provides a destination when you want to go nowhere.  For visual observing of the night sky, it provides a haven from the rushing world around you, allowing your mind to drift between the stars.  It is, in a very real sense, a temple of the mind.

 

Peering into the face of eternity is an awe inspiring and mind altering endeavor.  But the mechanics of it all can quickly get in the way.  After a busy day at work, you come home to the joys and demands of family life, need to get things done around the house, and are tired from a long day on the job.  You'd love to get out there to relax under the stars, but are faced with hauling out the telescope, setting it up on it's mount, bring out the accessories such as the eyepieces, power supply, star charts, etc., and have to do the prep work such as wiring up the mount and dew heaters, aligning the mount, and waiting for the scope to adjust to outdoor temperatures.  And while you're observing, standing still and getting colder as the night progresses, the thought of disassembling it all, bringing it all back in, and storing it all away is hanging over your head.  Many nights it's just too much and a lot easier to say, forget it.  Especially in the cold winter months.

 

The observatory changes the equation.  The gear is in place, wired up, aligned, and ready to go.  You simply need to walk outside, open the observatory and start your journey to nowhere.  But the biggest impact goes far beyond the time savings.  It is the sense of peace in knowing that your drift through the universe is always available at a moments notice.  And while you're on that journey, it removes the pressure of the end-of-night tear down.  When you're done, or have reached your limit of tolerance for the cold, just close the observatory and step into the house.  

 

It's the removal of these extraneous activities that fundamentally changes the observing experience. It allows the mind the freedom to travel where it will, to focus on the vastness of the heavens, or to lose focus altogether and just be.  It's this profound shift in the attitude you bring to observing that makes the observatory worth every penny.

For astrophotography (AP), the story is  different.  AP is a very technical activity with many little details needing attention, any one of which can cause a problem if not done right.  It is very goal oriented, with each night feeling like a project with multiple phases that must be correctly executed to achieve the desired outcome.

 

The role of the observatory here is more straightforward.  It puts all the necessary gear in one location within easy reach, and reduces the number of things the astrophotographer needs to deal with because the gear is already mounted, aligned, and wired up.  With AP, the observatory is critical to making it an accessible and time-efficient hobby, and fitting it into a demanding and busy life.

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