The Closing of an Era & the Opening of Another!

To every operation there must come an end: one thing I have learned, and learned well, is that NOTHING is permanent. Everything is change. Change is ok. It is healthy. Sad, sometimes, but it is healthy. How do I handle that? I expect it. That’s simple.

This week marks the closure of one of my life time goals: a home observatory. The Northwood Ridge Observatory (MPC #225) was started in 1999 as a pier sunk into the ground with a lot of digging and hand-mixed concrete. That was logged here:  so go out and enjoy the photographic drama. I was a software engineer then, working on audio-video transfer through the internet and phone lines. The goal was to have a domed observatory with provision for doing my AAVSO work and taking plenty of pretty pictures. It was about a year later and in snowy weather that a big crate was delivered with the dome, and we set out to construct the enclosure. The result was a fabulous little observatory with a lot of power and capability. I spent many nights out there in the cold (or in the heat swatting mosquitoes) collecting data, and taking the shots of a lifetime under dramatically dark skies of Northwood, NH. This site documents the construction and use: 

Lots of great moments were had there. Many great shots were taken. Here are just a very few of the very very many taken at the site:

The Horsehead Nebula region of Orion. This was taken over many hours over several cold winter nights using RGB and Ha filters. This was one of the first shots in which I used the Luminance Layering Technique popularized by my friend Robert Gendler, now one of the best astrophotographers out there. Thanks Robert!


Below is a shot of M-31, the Andromeda Galaxy. Now, get this: I took this with an FSQ-106n, a 106mm diameter telescope! That is one dark sky and one great telescope.


One of the brighter nebulae out there, here is M-42 in Orion. It is so bright that images longer than 30 seconds in length would bloom the CCD chip, making this one tough target to get both deeply and clearly.


Here is IC 5146, another tough one. The stars would bloom and the nebula would remain hidden until many hours of imaging later, something like this resulted.


A lovely summer object, the Triffid Nebula. I love the emission and reflection nebulae all in one.


Lastly, one of my favorites: a shot of the Galaxy M-33. Just look at those spiral arms and star forming regions. You can also see something more ominous: the glow of light pollution which has made the left side of the image background green, and the right side a dull gray.


Well, as time went by, I changed jobs (now a teacher at a Phillips Exeter Academy), moved onto my work place’s campus and kept the NRO open for weekend getaways and vacation observing sessions. Time = change. Mice would move in as would yellow jackets, hornets, squirrels, chipmunks and more. I fought the good fight for a number of years. This time around, however, two things won in the end: the rodents really took over this summer, eating all things paper into nests, leaving their excrement everywhere and even taking out insulation between the pier and the floor. Secondly, the skies are just not what they used to be. What was once 6.0 is now 4.8 and getting brighter with the higher population in the area who have discovered the coolness of living within a 40 minute commute of Concord or Portsmouth, NH. Next, a major shopping center moved into town, and with that a bank and a new gas station. Lights killed it off. While the town does have a light pollution reduction ordinance, it is rarely carried out and is not retroactive. The decision to close the facility became not only obvious but also easy. Sad? YES. I am still in shock and will be for some time. Was it the right thing to do? Yes, absolutely. The facility not being used is a waste. Only time will tell what I will do with all the gear. I took it all out, cleaned it up and am happy to report that everything is immaculate, like new:


Above you see the mount in back, and the two main telescopes used at the site for the better part of ten years: a CN-212 and FSQ-106n. The ST-8 and ST-7 are back in their cases. So, goodbye for now NRO and dark skies of NH. I am putting together a travel set with my G11 and remote power supply. Perhaps you’ll see me out there in darkness amongst the mosquitoes and moose in the near future!

So now the good news. I think there is a special “law of the conservation of observatories” in action here!  A group up in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont has taken on a mission, and a great one at that! They are called the Northeast Kingdom Astronomy Foundation (NKAF). There website:  A few years ago, the dreams of one man, then a whole group of people came together with funding and hard work to establish a non-profit robotic observatory for the local schools. The goal: to enhance science education using hands-on techniques and astronomy as the model. Nothing could be better!  They are now in the end-of-construction phase and will be working on technology installations within the year’s end.

So, the location: Way up in northern Vermont. Here is the view along Route 91, northbound through the Connecticut River Valley. No traffic. No people. No cars. No lights! No light pollution!


Here is their facility just before they added grass seed…. wow – nice Ash Dome and lovely skies. The gentleman in front there is Dr. Sidney Wanzer, one of those who organized and helped to make this whole adventure possible. My part: technical consulting, and training expertise. I was up there to give a crash course in essential astrophysics to those teachers and docents who would be using the facility during the first year/s of operation. It was a splendid time. It is a perfect location. I am so happy for the NKAF and even more excited for those schools who get to use the facility. Wow. Just wow.


About johnb

- Director of Grainger Observatory, Phillips Exeter Academy. - Variable-star-crazed astronomer, but have done research in other areas. - Drummer, archer, pilot, chef, friend, pet owner, husband, father, Train-nut.
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