Introduction: Mobile Observatory (upcycled Bunk Bed)

About: I'm a professor of physics and astronomy at Northwestern University. I do a lot of hobbies, including amateur astronomy, woodworking, and Lego modeling among many others.

Modern life is busy, so finding time to spend out under the stars is sometimes difficult. Casual stargazing (looking at the moonrise or pointing out constellations,...) is often easy enough, but if you want to get your telescope out and see some craters on the Moon, or the rings of Saturn, or look at a star cluster half-way across the galaxy, it takes a little more effort to haul your equipment out, set it up, and get going.

To reduce the effort, backyard astronomers often resort to building an observatory, where your telescope is always set up. You pop open the roof, and voila! You're ready to observe. But an observatory can be as large of an investment as your telescope, and not every property is suited for an observatory.

My current house falls into this second category -- we live in the woods, and our "backyard" is the fringe wildlands against a wetland preserve that floods with heavy rains. There is no ideal open place to observe or place an observatory except one: the driveway.

My solution was to build a mobile observatory that rolls out of my garage! This Instructable details the rebuilding of my daughter's long abandoned loft bed from when she was in lower elementary into a new mobile "hidden observatory" in the middle bay of my garage. I call it Hidden Grove Observatory.

Step 1: What I Need in My Observatory

At this point in my astronomy life, I've lived in many different houses, and have built two previous observatories shown in the images above (you can see Star Gully Observatory right here on Instructables!). Each construction effort has taught me what the essentials for an observatory are for me to use it; most astronomers have a unique set of criteria that help enhance how they like to observe.

For me, I need three things to make an observatory functional:

  • My telescope to be setup all the time
  • My reference books (star atlases, a few books that I look info up in)
  • A desk for the current atlas I'm using and my notes (I take fastidious notes)

The premise of the Hidden Grove Observatory is that I can have everything setup in the garage, and just wheel it out onto the driveway. It's always inside and protected from the weather, and it shouldn't take any longer to push the telescope out into the open than it would normally take me to open up a dedicated observatory.

Step 2: Loft Bed Pieces

When my daughter outgrew the loft bed she had in elementary school, I kept all the pieces, resisting my wife's encouragement to just get rid of it, promising I would use it for something eventually.

The original loft bed was supported by a pair of islands, one at each end. One island had a built in desk with some organizational drawers. The other island had some large shelves, and some drawers to use as a dresser. I decided if you put them back to back, and if you could move them, they'd make a perfect portable observatory island.

Step 3: Rolling Platform

The whole point in recycling the bed pieces was to not have to buy anything new, so I went to my scrap wood and built a rolling platform the two bed pieces would ride around on.

The platform is simple -- a piece of half-inch plywood, with a rim of flat 2x4 lumber around the edge. I reasoned that most of the weight of the bed pieces was on the ends, so I didn't need cross joists. To keep the entire assembly low, I also could turn the 2x4s flat, rather than end on, since I didn't expect them to flex much.

I cut the plywood into a rectangle with the profile of the two pieces back-to-back, and screwed the 2x4 spars along the edges -- the wood piece makes a floor under the bed pieces, and provides a rigid frame for the 2x4s.

At each corner, I put a swiveling caster -- I had a set of 4 in my widgets bucket.

Step 4: Back to Back Islands

The bed pieces had a "decorative" cap on them that stuck out beyond the footprint of the island by a small amount.

I wanted them to butt up against each other without a gap, so i took the top off one and ripped a strip off the back of the cap with my tablesaw, then put it back on the island. This allowed the lip from one island to slide over the top of the other.

When the islands sat on the rolling platform, they were butted up against each other as close together as they could be.

Step 5: Attaching the Pieces Together

I wanted the new observatory island to be a monolithic piece, so no matter where I grabbed it to push or pull the bed pieces would not hop off the platform. First, I secured the feet of each bed piece to the trolley using different angle brackets I had in my widget bucket, at every corner of the two islands.

I also wanted to secure the two pieces together, so they couldn't move or tip alone. To this end I cut another rectangle of plywood and screwed it down into the top of the two pieces. This has the additional advantage of sealing off to top, making it into a large shelf-like storage area.

Step 6: Desk Extension

The desk in the bed piece is a good size for taking notes, but it is a bit small for my large star atlas, so I added a small extension that folds down when in use.

This was made from a 12" wide scrap of plywood from my wood bin. It is secured with utility hinges, and supported on the ends by short lengths of chain rescued from an old plant hanger. The chain is attached to screw eyes using small quicklinks.

It folds up when not in use. I attached a small S-biner to the chain that I clip into one of the eyebolts to keep it in place when folded.

Step 7: Trim & Finish

To finish off the top edge, I went around the edge with a piece of angle moulding to give it a finished look. I cut it off with 45-degree corners in my mitre box so it would match up at the corners, and tacked it around the edge with finishing nails. Th moulding has the additional advantage of giving a small lip that prevents anything from rolling off the top.

When you are out at night, as it get colder, dew starts to accumulate on everything, so you have to put a good finish on exposed wood. In this case, since the bed was originally meant for indoor use, I had to refinish it with multiple coats of Spar Urethane (also what I coat my telescopes with). This really helped give the islands and the new wood a nice uniform color, as the spar urethane has a deep amber hue to it.

Step 8: Electricity and Light

One advantage of permanent observatories is they can have power on demand. I added power to the observatory island by attaching a power strip inside the desk cubby, threading the tail of the strip out the back of the island to plug into an extension cord that runs to the house.

I made sure to get a power strip that had both outlets and USB ports, so I could charge my mobile devices if needed.

Since I read a lot of start atlases and take notes on my observations, it is also useful to have permanent lights. Astronomers like red lights, since they have less impact on your "night vision" -- your ability to see dim things like galaxies or nebulae.

In the corner of the desk I put a small swing arm desk lamp, outfitted with a red LED bulb. After using it for a couple of nights it is a little too bright and impacts my "night vision"; I'll need to put some red film over it or paint the white dome of the bulb red to dim it down. I also might be able to rig up a dimmer switch (in which case I'd have to find a dimmable LED bulb).

Step 9: Sign

All observatories should have names -- they are places that you spend lots of time, and I find evoke lots of memories and feelings from my nights out observing. More practically, it makes taking notes easier since the name uniquely identifies where you were in your notes!

So I made a sign for Hidden Grove Observatory, carved in two-tone acrylic on my X-Carve and mounted it on the end of the observatory island.

Step 10: Chair Hook

One of the most common accessories in telescope observing is a famous "Denver Chair" originally invented by Dave Trott of the Denver Astronomical Society (see Dave's original article here, or google to find other plans and modifications by creative backyard astronomers). It's a simple chair that can be built with hand-tools, and is adjustable to the varying heights that telescopes find themselves at when out observing.

I have a commercial version of the Denver Chair, but it is always kicking around leaning against a wall somewhere, so I wanted a permanent home for it on the observatory island. So I fashioned a hook for it out of a broken umbrella handle (trash to treasure!) and a 2x4 scrap.

I routed a groove the width of the handle into the back of the 2x4, screwed the handle into the 2x4, then screwed the whole assembly onto the island with the handle trapped.

My chair hangs easily on the handle and goes where the observatory goes!

Step 11: Accessorize!

A couple of accessory items make the observatory even easier to spend an evening with.

On one end I put a couple of coat hooks. Throughout the evening, I often put on or take off layers depending on how warm or cold it is, so this makes it easy to find my jackets and sweatshirts and keep them off the ground.

I put a small shelf inside the desk space to hold a small speaker and give my phone a place to live, so I can listen to music while I'm observing.

Lastly, I took one of our spare garage door openers and clipped it on the island, so I could easily close the door when I was setup, and open it when it was time to pack up for the night.

Step 12: Observatory Rollout

The "observatory" lives (is hidden) in the middle bay of my garage, the observatory island and my telescope waiting to be rolled out for a night of observing.

I open the garage door, push out the observatory island (it is easy to push on my own), roll out the telescope, and hook the extension cord up to the observatory island.

Shut the garage door and I'm ready to go!

Step 13: Observatory Use

In the first image above, you can see my typical setup -- I have my observing table (the observatory island) off to one side of the telescope, with my atlases and notebooks on it.

When I'm observing, I often sit at the table consulting my star maps to figure out how to navigate to the galaxy or star cluster I plan on looking at. I'll walk back and forth to the telescope, pointing then reconsulting the atlas until I find the object. I usually move my observing chair back and forth between the telescope and my table as needed.

On the backside of the observatory island are the large shelves that were once part of the loft bed. I have my eyepieces on one, a flip-top tote with extra sweatshirts, hats and gloves, and a tough action packer tote on the bottom with my star atlases; the Denver Chair hangs next to the shelves.

Step 14: Action Shots

Here are a few pictures of the Hidden Grove Observatory in use at night. Already I can tell it is increasing the time I spend out with my telescope by making it easier to just get out!

This has been an almost perfect upcycling of the old bed pieces, and a great solution for my limited observing site. I hope it inspires you to look at your own astronomy space creatively, and to imagine ways you might be able to develop your own custom observatory space. Let me know in the comments if you have any creative ideas or solutions.

I leave you with a gratuitous shot of the Moon through my telescope taken on the night I shot these pictures.

Happy observing!

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