Construction Reports for the Boller-Sivill Observatory

March, 2016 through February, 2017
Originally Published in the Prairie Astronomy Club Newsletter
By Brett Boller and Brian Sivill

May, 2016

The Boller-Sivill roll-off observatory at Branched Oak Observatory is officially underway!

On Saturday, May 7,  Brett and I embarked on an overly ambitious plan to get concrete footings poured for Brett’s 12 foot by 24 foot structure design. Delays set in from the start, having to go to the South Home Depot for some rental equipment, then discovering they only had the two-man auger, not the drill bit…. say what? When we called, we presumed you would have told us THAT PART.

Nearly every step of our initial day was delayed or interfered with.  Fortunately, Matt Anderson with Branched Oak Observatory recommended we call a nice guy down the road who has really cool equipment. One phone call later, we had Sunday scheduled with a very generous Doug Buhrman and his tractor-mounted hole auger.

On Sunday, Doug and I got the six foundation holes dug along with two holes for telescope piers!
Sketchy weather was playing havoc with our ability to work at the now muddy site. A few days with some volunteer help I had rounded-up produced very little further progress – until Brett and his dad, Bill, came out Wednesday (today).  Brett and Bill finished setting the forms in place, and mixed and poured all of the primary structure footings.
Progress is very tangible now! Our mission: To build an observatory where we can perform astrophotography, and eventually, do it remotely.

We intend to partner with PAC – providing members support a shared investment concept.
In any case, the Boller-Sivill observatory will have several telescopes, plus a tracking platform intended to permit astrophotography for any club member with a DLSR.

We have big plans and ideas, and we now have real, tangible progress.

June, 2016

Currently, the building’s base structure is set, the floor is fully decked, and the column holes are cut.  Sonotube column forms and rebar are soon to be in place to facilitate pouring concrete for the telescope piers. The control room walls are standing and the first door is hung in the 8×12 control room.
It’s starting to look like a REAL THING!

Brett and his father, Bill, recently located a large amount of steel ‘U’ channel, which we are in the process of purchasing.
The steel will be used for the rolling roof’s rails and will comprise the entire external portion of the rolling roof’s support structure.
The discovery of this ‘scrap’ steel is very exciting and precipitous for our project.  Without it, a wooden rail system would have been our only alternative, purely due to cost.

The steel isn’t free, but we’re getting it at scrap value.
Brett has also been communicating with Joe Mize of the Chiefland Astronomy Village in Florida regarding Joe’s observatory roof design. His roof uses a beam designed by an Architectual Engineer. The beams are composed of 2×12’s with plywood plates sandwiched on both sides, creating triangular structures which oppose lateral sway. Very simple to build and very strong.

This design has a number of advantages:
-Stronger and lighter than traditional trusswork.
-Far more overhead clearance, not requiring cross-members and their support.
-Relatively easy to build, onsite or offsite.
-Permits almost any chosen amount of sidewall to be included within the roof design, leaving shorter walls for observing/photographing.

After we solve a few standing technical hurdles, and a few design choices,  we won’t have too much trouble getting all of the remaining sidewalls erected.

Then on to roof and rail system construction. Much progress, much excitement and anticipation.

July, 2016

The four telescope piers are poured, dry and very solid.
We intend to operate four separate mounted instruments. The spacing is slightly tight, but there’s ample space for each mount.

A steel support system is in place to support the displaced roof. We spent most of last Sunday putting up the lower walls, which will support the roller rails.

We are refining a few elements tomorrow (Sunday Jul 17th) in effort to perfect building and support structure alignment.
Brett and his dad, Bill have put a ton of labor into the project so far and continue to come to the rescue for any issue. Each month brings considerable forward progress!

Roof designs are now our dominant focus. We will have to power the observatory using solar charged batteries, so our solar charger and sun tracker designs continue to evolve.

We welcome any donations: labor, materials, solar panels etc.

August, 2016

Forward progress continues on the Boller-Sivill Observatory.
Construction had been delayed a few weeks due to the Nebraska Star Party as we focused our interests and efforts elsewhere.
Brett and I have been vetting a number of roof profile possibilities, and finally settled on a traditional low-slope center peak. We’re trying to minimize the roof’s outline and still maintain sufficient strength.

On August 13 we were able to construct roof truss work over the control room. We were aided considerably by Brett’s friend, Curtis Johnson, who is a professional builder/framer. His expertise and advice was quite valuable and he quickly proved that he could do about as much work as Brett and I combined! Curtis gave us number of pointers and recommendations as he inspected the majority of the structure.

Sunday August 14, Brett, Bill Boller and I finished the remaining details on the control room’s roof and proceeded to cover it with beautiful, shiny, red sheet metal.

Brett and Bill had found a great buy on sheet metal siding/roofing at an auction. Most of the sheet metal is white, which will serve as the building’s siding. But there is enough red sheeting to cover our whole roof…. we think.

With a sporty new red roof on the control room, it’s nice to finally have a spot of shade somewhere on the structure. The Sun has been brutal the last few times we’ve been out.

This coming weekend, we expect to get the main outside door hung and finish up some sidewall sheathing details.  Having doors and a roof on the control room will allow us to keep some tools and supplies onsite without fear of weather damage.  This weekend we will also be concentrating on installing and levelling the steel rails for the rolling roof. Brett has some sample roller wheels we will be evaluating as well.

We’re still making decisions on the rolling roof’s truss design and evolving our electrical plan. In the coming weeks we hope to be able to announce a real, live, rolling roof! Once the roof can physically roll, we’ll start working on a motor drive for it.

Parallel to our efforts, Michael Sibbernsen has drawn up a very reasonable Memo of Understanding between Branched Oak Observatory and Boller-Sivill Observatory regarding the use of the facility. The MOU helps Brett and I establish BSO as a facility focused primarily on amateur astrophotography, but will have a very important secondary function in providing public access to some of the instruments on a regular basis.  It will be a multi-use facility.

PAC members take note – we still plan to partner formally with the Prairie Astronomy Club to insure that PAC members have a pathway to engage in astrophotography. We intend to support both inexperienced and advanced efforts!

Using his drone, Brett has taken some incredible photos of the BSO at a number of altitudes.

September, 2016

Extensive progress has been made at the Boller-Sivill Observatory in the past 30 days.  We have been onsite every single weekend since the last newsletter, leading to considerable forward progress.

One sunny weekend Brett and I (and a few volunteers) managed to build the entire roof assembly, wheels and all.  We got some great help from John Willman, Lee Taylor and John Reinert. The bare skeleton of the rolling roof assembly was truely a thing of beauty as we admired our work.
Soon after, Brett, Bill Boller and I put the fancy red sheet tin on the new structure’s roof, and boy does it look great! The sheet tin adds an amazing amount of rigidity to the framework, the roof is very solid and stable.

Over one rainy weekend I managed to get a few LED lights put up inside, anticipating the structure to be enclosed (and dark) very soon. We will fully LED light the observatory in both white and red.

During one of Brett and Bill’s weekday visits to the site, they put up brand new white sheet tin on the West side. As of this writing, the entire structure is now sided. Most of our siding was purchased by Bill and Brett at a local auction for a very good price. We did have a few slight color mismatches but we worked with it pretty well.  I helped sheet tin over a two day weekend, working in the hot sun.  But the bulk of the siding efforts were accomplished by Brett and his Dad, Bill. The structure looks simply fabulous.

The last two weekends, Brett and I have been working on the steel structure where the roof will reside when rolled away for observing/photographing. There will be a steel beam bridging to the structure, and then extensions on the far end to allow the roof to fully move off of the building.

This last weekend Doug Burhman loaned us his welder allowing my nephew, Jaymes Sivill to do some test welding. The welds looked good, but Jaymes determind that our 120v welder powered from a borrowed generator just didn’t have the juice to do the job.  So we will be renting a portable welder to complete the structure welding very soon.

We’re hoping to get the roof rolling in time for Branched Oak Observatory’s Star Party and fundraiser on Saturday, October 1st. We encourage all PAC members, friends and family to attend. We will be giving tours of the new facility!

October, 2016

Big happenings at the Boller-Sivill Observatory this month
We rolled the roof away for the very first time!

Fortunately, it was uneventful and went entirely as planned. We managed to accomplish this just hours prior to Branched Oak Observatory’s big Star-B-Que and fundraiser – just in the nick of time, really. And a big night it was with 400 plus people in attendance.  Another first for that night was BSO’s first astrophoto!  Brett and I collaborated on making an image of M27, the Dumbell Nebula. Using my Pentax K5-II as the imager and Jason Mulek’s 150mm F7 Skywatcher refractor. A 3 minute exposure proved the mount to not be well polar aligned, so we settled on a fairly decent 30 second exposure at ISO1600.

Also this month we installed built-in red LED lighting and set up 9 solar panels connected to a fairly hefty deep-cycle battery. We expect to have as many as six or eight batteries to fully power the facility. For now, we’re in good shape. The motor for the roof arrived in the mail late last week as well as a 1000 watt inverter and a new solar charge controller. Enough to keep us busy on electrical systems for a while.

The best news of all is that we can use the facility now!

November, 2016

Progress on BSO slowed quite a bit this month due to personal events and Husker football games. I finished up illuminating the outside stairs with red LEDs, Brett procured some decent marker boards and tack boards, and hung one of the marker boards. Brett also got a great buy on some floor tile destined for the control room.

The big story this month is the flurry of progress being made on BOO’s 16 foot dome building. Michael Sibbernsen and Matt Anderson have relentlessly worked this month on erecting a basic structure, and have much to show for their efforts. A small contingent of volunteers have helped: Brett Boller, Doug Buhrman – who has contributed more labor and resources than anyone though possible, Jeff Guettler from OAS, John Reinert from PAC, and B.O.O.’s newest and most enthusiastic Associate, Bryan Schaff – who is also a former PAC member/officer.

The building for the 16 foot dome could easily have sidewalls by the time this newsletter goes out.
Concrete left-over from pouring the footings and telescope base of the 16 foot dome building made for a very nice cement pad in front of Boller-Sivill roll-off, so we have that to show!

Also, we had a nicely attended PAC-only Star Party on November 19. Skies were clear and weather was cold, but we all had a nice time, thanks to those who attended.

December, 2016

December has brought some pretty harsh weather, but it didn’t seem to slow progress.

Early in the month, a full crew of volunteers helped erect a ham radio tower which will hold our wi-fi bridge, providing internet to the whole observatory grounds. Internet access will be an essential feature when we make the (warp) jump to full remote control. The same day, our volunteer crew took down three dead or dying trees. Brett and I were sore for days!

A few weeks later, we managed to get our solar panels re-configured after high winds had knocked them down. We pop-riveted the cheap metal frames which support the panels.

On another visit, Brett did the rough-in and base wiring of the 120v system for the control room. This sets the stage for getting some PCs powered up to control telescopes, cameras and accessories.

But the *really big* news is that the 150mm Esprit refractor was permanently installed on a new pier support system!

The steel pier extension was designed by Brian and built by machinist Doug Hodgin. The end result is a very rigid support, fully isolated from the observatory building, making the telescope very stable. This is one more critical step toward a fully-operational facility. Excitement continues to build for all of us involved!

January, 2017

Though we’ve had some rough weather this month, a lot of work got done at Branched Oak on the Boller-Sivill Observatory.
Inspired by a few really frigid experiences at the observatory, Brett put up insulation in the control room. A week or so later, he and his dad, Bill Boller, had the whole control room fitted with drywall. Brett is now proud to report that, when using our propane heater, it’s possible to attain control room temperatures on par with the Equatorial Sahara, all while the outside temp is in low double-digits. All kidding aside, its very nice to have refuge from the cold when observing and WE GOT THAT!

Not long after, we were able to install a nice new wrap-around countertop, courtesey of my partner, Julie Cole, and her wonderful people at Custom Countertop. Around the same time, Michael Sibbernsen installed a network bridge, bringing internet connectivity right to the BSO roll-off. The following week, Brett and I moved in some file cabinets and mounted four computer monitors to the wall. The monitor mounts are a clever design that Brett found which extend nicely, yet fold flat against the wall. We then powered up a few computers we had been preparing for the Observatory. I’ve been re-purposing retired Windows PCs by installing Linux on them, with outstanding results. Brett had also donated a Linux ‘all-in-one’ machine running Ubuntu. So we are now officially a ‘Linux shop’. Our very first experience using our ‘new’ PCs and internet connection, was to live-stream the Spacex launch and successful landing on Jan 14th. We were thrilled with BOTH the Spacex effort and the speed of our network!

With a Branched Oak Star Party scheduled for Jan 28, we’ll have some nice things to show off, and a warm space for relaxing.
Bit by bit we improve and advance the facility. We should be in good form for the coming year!

February, 2017

Last month at the Branched Oak Observatory and the Boller-Sivill Observatory we completed considerable work on our solar-powered electrical system. Until recently, our solar charging and power distribution had been largely temporary in nature. We now have two complete power delivery systems installed: a 12v DC system, and a 120v AC system. The newly-installed 120v circuit breaker panel is supplied by by a 1000 watt inverter which powers all of BSO’s computer and network hardware. Eventually, we’ll need a second (or larger) inverter, but this will cover our 120v needs for some time. A 12v circuit breaker panel was installed powering all of our LED lighting and supplies the telescopes. Both systems are powered by a new battery array comprised mostly of 6v golf cart batteries donated by Brett’s friend, Stan Houlden. And of course, the battery array is recharged by 100% clean sunshine from our solar panel array. New solar panels will soon be ordered to replace these older generation types we’re using. The new panels will increase our charging power five-fold.

A few weeks ago a volunteer crew pre-assembled Branched Oak Observatory’s 15 foot dome in Doug Buhrman’s shop. This was a test run to see what will be needed for final assembly on site. The dome looks great assembled and appears to have all of the pieces and parts needed. Soon, B.O.O. will have a shiny, beautiful astronomy dome!

The big news from this last weekend: We installed Michael Sibbernsen’s 7 inch Maksutov-Cassegrain telescope on one of the remaining concrete piers. So we now have three operational telescopes in the Boller-Sivill roll-off. Two are mounted on piers while one SCT still resides on a tripod.

We’ve had a number of exciting star parties at BOO/BSO recently, and we’re all looking forward to milder weather and more astronomy.