The Five-Year Run of Coleman Observatory

Thursday, January 22 2009 @ 01:59 am EST

Contributed by: bobmoody

The day after Christmas, 2003, I had a wild urge to get outside and start trying to erect one of the buildings we wanted to use as a roll-off roof observatory at our new location for Coleman Observatory. I'd been meaning to get to this since July 4th when a sudden storm had come up in the late evening and rained hard for about an hour. My 12.5" telescope was outside through that rain and the wood on it suffered considerable damage from swelling.

Observing in the open. Wide open skies, but wide open to rainstorms, too. Summer, 2003. All images by Bob Moody unless otherwise noted.
We needed a building. That wasn't a particularly great day, kinda cloudy and cool, but I thought I had the strength and lack of back pain that I needed to get started.
The proverbial "Day One", December 26, 2003.
So, I dug two holes, poured concrete and set the first two posts for the railing that would carry the roof out of the way when I eventually reached the day for that roof sometime in 2004. The next week, I built one wall, at least the framework for one wall, and it was another week before I could physically build the second, about another week apart each for the other two walls, and the building of Coleman Observatory was underway. I'd work when I could, as much as I could stand, and slowly, painfully slowly, it came into shape and became my first roll-off roof building. That was five years ago last month. Now, I'm wondering how much its going to take to dismantle everything we'd done in the ensuing 4 years, and move Coleman Observatory to its third location in 24 years.

My actions caused Joe Roam to want to begin the other building and we started the framework for the large roll-off roof building before we even had the outer siding on the first building. I'd brought some building materials with me when I moved to the site in June '03, and that's what provided us with everything I'd used until this time. The only club funds use for the small bulding came from the purchase of the framing lumber for the roof and the sheeting for the roof and the neoprene roofing nails. Joe bought the lumber for the framework of the second building and we had that erected by March 1st. In the meantime, I'd decided to construct a fold-down south gable for the small building. A strip of piano hinge was just the thing to give me what I needed.
Nearly all the materials in the framework for the small building had been used somewhere else before, then carefully disassembled and finally reused here.
I spent a day framing the gable and installing the hinge, and began to consider just how to go about building the roll-off roof; something I had no experience at.

But how hard could it be to just build a roof and not secure it to the top plate of the walls? All I needed to do was rig some wheels under the framework to allow the roof to roll back on two 20-foot rails of 2" channel-iron. With the roof rolling northward, and the gable to the south folding down, I assumed I'd have enough sky to basically call it a wide-open view. The walls would only be 4' high on this smaller building, but that should be enough to give good protection from all but the windiest conditions......I hoped.

Just attach the 2X4 purlings over the rafters on the roof, cover with sheeting, and voila, a solid roof! (I hoped)
The rest of the roof went relatively slowly. I knew I needed to keep everything as square as possible in order to help the finished roof roll as straight as possible. It also needed to be as solid as I could make it, but I couldn't use braces rigged as joists such as a house might have. This would essentially have to be a vaulted ceiling, with bracing only at the top near the crown of the structure. That had to be as solid as I could possibly build it. By now it was nearly summer, and I'd done most of the work myself with assistance from Joe Roam and Dr Chuck Larson.

The only place I could locate the door into this building was the north wall. I also had to consider the fact that the roof had to roll that direction in order to expose the sky. That's why the structure had to be as solid as possible near the crown, to make it sturdy and yet give me the clearance for rolling over the frame of the doorway. Every point of attachment between two boards had to be cut as perfectly as I could make them, and extra screws added to keep them together even through strong storms and high winds. I used 2X4 purlings to bind the rafters together and provide the strongest attachment for the roofing tin.
Moving day. June 14, 2004.
I used regular galvanized corrugated roofing tin for the roof, and even though I didn't figure it mathematically to end up that way, each 12'-long sheet of corrugated tin was cut exactly in half, and that spanned the length from the crown to the bottom-outside edge of the roof exactly! As if I'd been a real carpenter, HA!

At about the same time, Joe took pity on me and we found a old-but-solid 12X50 mobile home. Joe bought the trailer and we moved it to the site and I finally moved out of the 23' 5th-wheel trailer of Joe's that I'd lived in for 51 weeks. I split my good days when I could move without excess pain between the skirting around the trailer and the finishing touches on the roof. I finally called the smaller building complete around the end of July, 2004. Now we could concentrate on the larger building. But first there was a little thing going on in the solar system that took all our attention, the undivided attention of every astronomer on the planet during the last week of August.....Mars was coming as close to Earth as it had been at any time in the previous 58,000 years!

Click "Read More" for the rest of this article.

On August 27, at around 04:50am, Mars reached that magical spot, that closest point to Earth that it had been at any time in the previous nearly 60,000 years.

Just a little over 34, 646,000 miles from Earth, the closest distance between Earth and Mars in more than 58,000 years. Hubble Space Telescope/STScI/NASA image.
AOAS had worked hard with the Ft Smith Art Center to sponsor a public observing event on the grounds of the Art Center on August 23rd that had seen an estimated 5,000 people in attendance, with about 1-in-10 staying until the pesky clouds that had plagued us all day finally began to dissipate around 10:45pm. Anyway, Mars had only then reached a sufficient altitude above the eastern horizon to allow for the best viewing to begin, so except for losing the majority of the attendees, those who had held out for a peek at Mars were NOT disappointed. The so-called "Eye of Mars" was front-and-center in the middle of the planet and everyone enjoyed the impressive views through the approximately 10 AOAS member's telescopes that were there that night. We were running people through every telescope from midnight until almost 03:00am, and two club members had stayed to continue showing the surface features of Mars until a little after 04:00am!

On the night of August 27th, we hosted a night for the general public at the Coleman Observatory grounds, and a little over 100 people spent several hours with us viewing other Martian surface features that were visible that night. All but some 12 to15 people left before that special moment when the gap between our two worlds closed to its barest minimum, and then immediately began to pull away from one another once again, just as they had millions of times before in the grand dance of the planets since the beginning of our solar system. That was quite an experience, one I'll always remember, actually seeing Mars at that fleeting instant in time, that moment of closest cool.

The following month, we finished the large observatory building to the degree that we could start using it and we erected the CGE1400 14" SCT telescope that was donated to us by Dr. Chuck Larson.
About a dozen people spent the entire night at the telescopes on August 27, 2003, just so we could all say that we actually SAW Mars at the moment of its closest approach for the last almost 60,000 years.
That telescope was so difficult to setup each time you wanted to use it that putting it up in a semi-permanent location was the only logical way to use it. Until the fall of 2005, we used it in the large roll-off roof observatory building setup on its heavy-duty tripod until I finally installed a permanent pipe pier, and finally attached CETUS permanently in November 2006. We had a regular observing schedule set up to hold either one or two public nights each month until fall 2008. We ran perhaps another 2,000 or more people through our facilities during the five-year run at 5533 Wildwood Rd, 8 miles NW of Van Buren, and we enjoyed those five years immensely. But trouble with crooked lawyers and unscrupulous mortgage companies conspired to work against Joe and his family. The property passed into foreclosure and the sale was to have been today, January 20, Inauguration Day for a new president, an historic day tempered by the fact that we now are searching for a new place to move this facility to once again.

Girl scouts and their chaperons from Mt Magazine area council were our guests last February 29, when we viewed through CETUS
It is our profound hope that our 24 years of public outreach and service might move someone, or perhaps maybe some company or corporation, to take it upon themselves to help us with either a sale of an appropriate property location for this next move, or perhaps, be willing to work closely with us to allow a long-term lease agreement to be signed that would allow us to use a piece of property as we see fit in order to provide for on-site security and thereby allow us to reopen Coleman Observatory on a full-time basis once again.

We have been most effective this way in these last five years, when anyone could drive up and nearly always be shown the big telescope and grounds, and get some answers to their astronomical questions. We'd love to continue on as closely to the system we've enjoyed since 2003 as we possibly can. If anyone reading this article wishes to discuss our situation with us, they may contact our Coleman Relocation Committee chair, Mike Baker at (479) 434-0785, or via email at Help us to continue serving our area as we have for 24 years, in bringing the wonders of our universe to the people of the Arkansas River Valley and surrounding area.

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