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Old 12-05-2020, 01:08 PM
jamespierce (James)
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Toadhall Observatory

From about age 13 or 14 shortly after I started into astronomy I drew pictures and designs for a remote robotic observatory. I had planned then to put it in central Australia, probably at the same time as my planned sailing trip across Lake Eyre. All this must have been inspired by seeing and reading about research telescopes like AAT at Siding Spring etc.

Over the last few years I've had the chance to actually build a remote, completely automated observatory. I'd always ment to keep a construction diary here on IIS having benefited from so many ideas and learning from others. In the end just getting the thing built and working has been such a massive effort somehow it got lost along the way.

To share my learning, choices and experiences along the way I thought I'd make up for it now with a series of posts about the major parts and decisions, and what I've learned about the hardware along the way.

I thought I'd try and cover:

  • Footings & Pier
  • The Deck
  • The Dome
  • The Electrical Setup
  • The Networking Setup
  • Weather & Sky Monitoring
  • Computer Hardware & Software
  • The Mount
  • The Telescope
  • The Camera
  • Remote Flat Fields
  • Humidity Control
Let me know if there are other things you're curious about along the way. I'll try and post steadily over the next little while as I dig through photos and write up the sections.


"Toadhall"

Why the name? Mr Toad of Toad Hall is a key character from Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame ... Of course we would all want to be Mr Badger, or perhaps Mole. But instead Toad who lives in Toadhall was prone to impulsive and crazy obsessions, frustrating flights of fancy each invariable expensive and not always successful. This seems like Astro Photography to me.
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Old 12-05-2020, 01:28 PM
jamespierce (James)
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Footings and Pier

One of my design goals was to make sure that down the track I could move the dome if required. This combined with much advice that a floating deck is a better approach than a concrete slab for a couple of reasons:
  • Much lower thermal mass with air flow under the dome.
  • The challenge of getting a round concrete slab really level.
  • Domes on concrete slabs often seem to have damp/water issues.
  • The easy running of cables for power, network and more.
I found a local digger contractor with a large 600mm auger bit and we used that for the pier footing. The hole is over 2000mm deep with about 1 cubic meter of concrete in it. The deck footings are 300mm diameter and ~600mm deep, some deeper based on the soil. The pier footing has a big piece of reo mesh bent into a circle to add a bit of strength, and then the bolt cage is sitting above that.

All up about 1.2 cubic meters of concrete delivered in a mini mixer. Concreting is hugely physical, and being able to pour the main pier footing directly is a huge saving of effort. All the footings are agitated to remove air bubbles. The bolt cage was carefully aligned to south using a bit of formply to box up and hold the cage in the correct position. I won't lie, the concrete pour is a fast and furious process so I was very nervous until I had the pier in place and could confirm that it was both very nearly perfectly level, and also aligned to within a degree of south.

If I had to remove the dome the 6 deck footings would break up fairly easily. The main pier footing is level with the ground level and the top could be broken up to a degree with some effort, but the main plug isn't going anywhere fast. I can report now over a year later than there has been no movement of the pier.

If I did it again I wouldn't change a thing.
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Last edited by jamespierce; 18-05-2020 at 05:23 PM.
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Old 12-05-2020, 01:53 PM
jamespierce (James)
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The Deck

The deck is a galvanized steel frame with synthetic wood planks and ~400 stainless steel deck screws. All products from Bunnings, none were cheap. The reason I went with the steel frame is it's a single integral piece once assembled which is then put on adjustable legs. This makes it easy to get the deck perfectly level, and it also makes it possible to sling the whole thing with the dome onto a truck if I need to move it someday. The advice I had on the dome was that getting its base perfectly level was key to good performance and reduced wear and tear over time.

No timber to rot, no timber to paint, no timber for termites to eat and no timber to warp over time. The synthetic timber planks were chosen for the same reason.

Building the deck took two of us two very big ~10 hour days, you need a couple of very good impact drivers and you need to cycle the batteries through a charger. As you can see from the photo the deck is anchored to one corner (the shortest leg in my case), a couple of hydrolic jacks then allow the deck to be precisely leveled and positioned.

If I did it again the only thing I would change is trimming the boards in place with a track saw when they were all fixed. We measured and pre-cut with a mitre saw, but it's difficult to get the ends perfect this way.
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Old 12-05-2020, 05:49 PM
jamespierce (James)
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The Dome

I guess the first question is why a dome and not a roll off observatory? I seriously considered both options but in the end decided to go for a dome for the following reasons:
  • Protection from wind when open and all weather when shut.
  • A dome suited the ideal location on the property.
  • Shielding from local light (it’s next to a house, people live there and turn lights on and off)
  • No issues with local planning rules, under 10 square meters and not a fixed structure anyway.
  • Reliable turnkey option (it is often many months between visits to the dome).
  • Domes look cool
My sense is building a roll-off from scratch that is weatherproof enough and reliable enough for unattended remote operation isn’t a small task. I’m really not sure how it would work out cost wise, perhaps abit cheaper.

Ok then, which dome? We are actually pretty spoiled for choice here in Australia with Sirus, NextDome and ScopeDome all with good local support. There might be a few other options but these are the options I’m most familiar with. The Sirus is a 2.3m dome, the NextDome is 2.2m and the ScopeDome is a 3m design. I liked the extra space, I liked the rotating design and I liked the software and hardware intergration with the ScopeDome. The importer and local support is based in Melbourne too so that was an advantage in my mind.

I went with a fully automated ScopeDome 3m which is supplied as a kit with every component required for full automation tested and ready to go. The support from Steve and the quality of everything is excellent. Building the dome itself took 2 full days and then another 2 full days of commissioning, configuration, testing and calibration. No single step of the process is difficult, the documentation is quite good, the support is excellent but it’s still an involved process. Going in to the details could be a huge thread of its own.

If you’re going to build a ScopeDome feel free to get in touch an I’ll give you my tips.

If I did it again and I was building on the right property somewhere very dark I’d consider a roll off with room for a number of piers however building one serious astro photography setup is expensive enough! If I wanted another dome I wouldn’t hesitate to go with ScopeDome again.
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  #5  
Old 13-05-2020, 01:41 AM
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Joshua Bunn (Joshua)
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Hi James.

It looks like a great project and your covering the important subjects. I'm interested to see how you go about addressing the points in your first post.


Josh
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Old 13-05-2020, 04:57 PM
jamespierce (James)
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The Electrical Setup

Power to the dome

While testing the setup I just ran a very long extension cord out to the Dome from the house. I had originally intended to build a completely off grid solar and battery setup, but once I had the dome up and running and I started to measure how much power I was using it became clear that it would require a very large number of panels and batteries to cover winter days. Instead I bit the bullet and had an electrician run power to the dome underground - this turned out to not be all that expensive. If you have to go with a solar setup, consider carefully how much power you will need for devices like dehumidifiers etc.

UPS Backup

While the dome is connected to the mains being out in the country there are more interruptions than you might imagine. One nice feature of the ScopeDome controller is that it will automatically close using UPS power if the dome detects a mains power failure. A good UPS also protects your computers and camera hardware by regulating the power and preventing sudden unexpected power downs. I actually run two, one for the dome and the cloud sensor exclusively. There is a hardware link between the two so that if everything else has gone wrong the dome will still shut. The other runs the scope, computer, all sky camera and dehumidifier etc.

Remote switching

Having the ability to remotely power down and reboot components is essential for a fully remote setup. My first remote power switch was a Serveredge PDU which was web accessible, but it didnít have a scripting system and it wasnít easily controlled from any of the telescope automation software. The switch I should have bought up front was the one I use now - A Digital Logger - 85-240V Smart Power Switch version is web accessible, has a basic scripting engine and is ASCOM compatible.

If I did it again Iíd just buy the Digital Logger the first time. Otherwise Iím very happy with the electrical setup.
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Last edited by jamespierce; 18-05-2020 at 11:19 AM.
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Old 13-05-2020, 05:00 PM
jamespierce (James)
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The Networking Setup

This was one of the simplest parts of the setup for me having a background in telecommunications and engineering. I went with a Teltonika RUT950 which I’ve used in other projects. It’s a small 12v industrial router which supports multiple WAN connections (physical ethernet, WiFi and GSM) as well as sophisticated firewall and routing configurations.

The primary connection is via WiFi to the NBN radio link in the house. The secondary connection is a 4G connection to a fixed IP Optus plan via a high gain antenna. The NBN connection is generally quite good, but it fails often enough that having a backup is fairly cheap insurance. I use a dynamic DNS service to provide connections into the setup via the web as well as TeamViewer for direct PC control. I also have a standard wifi hotspot for a Nest camera and convenience while working in the dome.

If I did it again I wouldn’t change a thing.
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Old 13-05-2020, 05:01 PM
jamespierce (James)
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Weather & Sky Monitoring

You must have a cloud detector (they also detect rain, wind and humidity)
You should have an all sky camera
You might like to have an SQM

There are a few cloud sensors out there, the AAG, Sky Alert and Boltwood II - I read everything I could and found the Boltwood was used by many professional observatories as well as many of the biggest remote hosting providers. If there is one component that must be 100% reliable itís your cloud detector. So far itís worked just fine, but itís certainly very expensive for what it is. One draw for me is it was specifically listed as compatible with the ScopeDome hardware shutdown trigger.

Once I decided to go with the Boltwood for weather, I chose to match it up with an SBIG 340m also from diffraction limited - Itís a very old, terrible quality but very reliable all sky camera. Again used all over the world. They are now discontinued and will be replaced with a more modern camera. About time. I had a very frustrating intermitted fault with this camera which turned to to be related to the computer, not the camera but every time it crashed it was a reminder how useful an all sky camera is.

I have an SQM-LE sky quality meter. This was fairly cheap and itís quite useful to judge when conditions are marginal, thin high cloud that doesnít show clearly on the camera can be confirmed with the cloud sensor and the SQM combined. It also shows the clear impact of the moon. After testing I mounted all three detectors onto a pipe which I concreted into the ground a few meters away from the dome with all the cables run under ground in some PVC pipe back to the dome.

If I did it again Iíd seriously look at the Sky Alert cloud sensor and would definitely buy a different all sky camera though Iím not quite sure what. They are all overpriced for what they are, but we also demand they work day and night in the sun and rain for 10 years.
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Last edited by jamespierce; 18-05-2020 at 09:16 AM.
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Old 18-05-2020, 09:35 AM
jamespierce (James)
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Computer Hardware & Software

This is a big topic so I'll aim to just list the main bits, happy to cover specific questions. The whole dome runs off a fanless Fit-PC IPC2 model - so far this has been 100% reliable and I know a number of other IISers are also using these. As you see in the photo, I've added an external fan - While according to the manufacturing it's fine for these to get very hot, adding a low volume 120mm fan on top like this has dropped the temperature hugely... This fan will eventually fail because of damp etc, but it's cheap and easy to replace.

On Windows 10 Pro the main software stack I'm using is the following:
  • ACP
  • TheSkyX
  • Maxim DL
  • PWI3
The key utilities are:
  • ClarityII (weather)
  • Cloud Sensor Graph II (weather graphs)
  • SQM Reader Pro 3 (SQM graphs)
  • SBIG AllSky-340
  • TeamViewer
  • Dropbox
One of the biggest jobs all year has been refining all the automation and scripting. Startup and shutdown scripts, automated sky flats, automated humidity management and so-on and so-on. After over a year I'm still making small changes and improvements, but the observatory is at the point of totally hands off operation. I have to load the scheduler queue with objects and I have to deal with the inevitable crashes of various pieces of software in the system. One of the tricky things with astro imaging is lots of pieces of software and hardware, all written by and used by fairly small groups of people. Bugs and unexpected interactions are just a fact of life.

One thing I will say, the support from Bob at ACP is first class. I pay a subscription for Maxim, TheSkyX and ACP ... ACP is the only one that feels like it has good support, and is worth the price of admission. The others are very much grudge purchases.

If I did it again I'd love to see if I could get the same functionality using a linux based system... Indi isn't there yet.
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Old 18-05-2020, 10:05 AM
jamespierce (James)
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Remote Flats, Humidity Control and Other Extras

Flat Fields

Lots of remote observers run with sky flats but with a range of filters and PA angles it's not really practical for me to get enough in with the short time window available each day. I mounted a spike-a-flat panel to the dome wall in a position where I can slew the scope and make sure it's in a consistent position. I use the lighting circuit from the dome to turn it on and off remotely from the script.

Humidity Control

Initially I didn't worry about this too much, but through the colder months the combination of humidity and temperature means that the inside of the dome (telescope, computer hardware etc) can end up dripping wet by the end of an observing run. The guys at Damp Solutions were really helpful in setting me up with a suitable model which turns on automatically on power up, with enough capacity to handle the dome etc - it's combined with a small heater because standard home type dehumidifiers really don't work below about 7 or 8 degrees C.

When ACP shuts the observatory down and powers everything off it checks the internal humidity from the dome's sensor via ASCOM, if it's too high it turns on the dehumidifier via the power switch and then checks every 5min to see if it's dropped below a set point. Normally it takes about 45-60min to bring it down to 65% humidity and everything is bone dry. If it's really cold and wet it can take 2-3 hours.

Remote Camera

Another nice to have which I only added fairly recently is a remote camera. I went with a Nest Outdoor camera on the inside of the dome. It has IR LEDs which can be turned on and off through the web interface. It can be embedded into the ACP web interface easily. Being able to double check the position of the telescope, cables and the dome is quite useful if something strange is happening. Mostly it's simple peace of mind, plus it's still fun to watch the scope slew around after all these years.

Local Support

I'm very lucky that my folks live on the property and while I very rarely need hands on support these days, in the early days were were lots of things that needed checking or tweaking. Like the remote camera it's peace of mind to know there is always someone around should something really go wrong, like the dome won't close and there is rain on the way.

If I did it again I wouldn’t change a thing.
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Last edited by jamespierce; 19-05-2020 at 09:48 AM.
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Old 18-05-2020, 10:24 AM
jamespierce (James)
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Mount, Telescope and Camera

Ultimately the most personal choice of an observatory depending on what you want to do with the observatory.

The Mount

I already had a Paramount MX+ which I had been using in a portable configuration. When I bought it I had this project in mind and really there are only a few viable choices for a remote observatory. You have to have a telescope which can either home itself on power up, or has absolute encoders so that it always knows where it is. It seems like there are more choices every day now, but when I was choosing there were not so many. In the future axis encoders are going to be an increasingly affordable and desirable option.

In an ideal world I’d get the largest mount I could, a Paramount MEII, a Planewave 200HR (discontinued) or a large 10Micron mount. But, you have to balance cost and benefit and end up with a balanced system overall. The MX+ works fine and can still carry quite large scopes. Every high end mount is very good, every high end mount has its quirks including the MX+.

If I did it again I’d seriously consider a 10 Micron mount or most likely a Planewave L Mount (which requires an offset pier for a wedge so you need to think about this from the very start).

The Telescope

I started with a refractor I already owned in the dome for my setup phase, but my intention was always to get a bigger scope. The lead time on these is significant so you order and you wait, 9 months in my case. My astronomical interests are varied so I wanted a scope with as much reach and aperture as possible while still keeping a reasonable field of view as well… I know, cake and eat it.

I landed on a CDK 14 with an IRF90 focuser - Basically the biggest and best setup I can carry on my MX+. It is beautiful telescope and a very substantial telescope. ~2.5m focal length @ F7.2 with a big 70mm image circle is a good compromise; I wish I could use a reducer, but the back focus is just too short to be practical. Already having the MX+ mount meant that any bigger would mean stepping up to an MEII or equivalent and another big step up in cost.

If I did it again I’d seriously consider the CDK12.5 which comes standard with a focuser and despite how nice the CDK14 is a CDK 12.5 would have been significantly cheaper. The rotator is an incredible focuser, but having rotated images adds complexity to gathering flat fields and scheduling images. It also adds to the complexity of choosing guide stars and so-on, before I had the option I lived in ignorant bliss, often imaging with sub-optimal guide stars but still getting good results.

The Camera

Matching the big field of the CDK I bought an SBIG STX 16803 while they were on sale and the AUD / USD was more attractive. They have effectively doubled in price now so a tricky choice. I'm still getting my head around getting the best performance out of this camera, there are a bunch of quirks that you have to learn to deal with these full frame chips. My KAF8300 camera was much more forgiving!

If I did it again I'd be seriously considering one of the new CMOS cameras it's obvious it's going to be the future, the question is just when.
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Last edited by jamespierce; 19-05-2020 at 10:01 AM.
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Old 18-05-2020, 10:27 AM
jamespierce (James)
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So that's pretty much the story, hopefully something in here can help or inspire someone else with their observatory build. If you have questions or there are specific details you want to know ask away.
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Old 18-05-2020, 02:15 PM
jahnpahwa (JP)
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Mate, that is such a huge effort, both the construction and the documentation here! Thanks so much

I assume I'm not the only one itching to see some results from this set up?
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Old 18-05-2020, 02:38 PM
jamespierce (James)
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I've had a run of good weather the last 5 nights so I've finally gotten through all the last of the calibration and config. I have a few hours on a number of targets including some nice narrow band targets and I'm doing a whole stack of darks right now - I'll post a few once I have them processed. A warning in advance, I image in monochrome or do photometery, so no pretty pictures!
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Old 18-05-2020, 03:55 PM
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strongmanmike (Michael)
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That was a great and rather inspiring read James, thanks, very enjoyable
The plan for me is to build another observatory (will be my 4th), if we ever have success in finding a suitable dark sky property...we have been looking for some time now , your story, while describing a setup a little more complicated than techno-conservative'ol me imagines still spurs me on and has given me some ideas

Mike
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Old 19-05-2020, 04:54 PM
jamespierce (James)
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NGC 6188 - 4hrs of Ha

8 x 30min Ha Subs.
Calibrated, stacked and very gently processed.
Eccentricity of 0.5
FWHM of 2.5


Conditions were ok but not great.
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Old 21-05-2020, 10:54 AM
jamespierce (James)
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Ngc 4594

1:1 Crop
~4hrs Luminance


Conditions were not as good for this one.
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Old 27-05-2020, 07:38 AM
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xthestreams (Paul)
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Inspirational!

I'm just starting on my rather low-key, poor man's equivalent on my balcony in inner Melbourne, the idea being to shake down my system and components before moving to a donor dark site in Ballarat.

The question of flats has been bothering me and it seems you too - what flat fielder did you select?

Similarly, the question of humidity seems to be rearing it's head, what did you select and how do you decide when to switch it on and off, I assume it's off during imaging runs?

Your whole setup is worthy of it's own website and blog, incredible!
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Old 27-05-2020, 09:26 AM
jamespierce (James)
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Flats

With the refactor I used a Flip-Flat which worked very well and acted as a dust cap as well. Then when I shifted to the reflector I changed to the wall mounted Spike-A Flat. Both are easily controlled by a simple command line script via USB which makes automating flats through ACP pretty simple. They run as soon as the dome closes at astronomical twilight in the morning. The only complex bit for me was figuring out how to turn the wall panel on and off given the whole dome rotates with the Scope Dome design.

Humidity

It's a Coolbreeze unit which the guys at Damp Solutions helped spec. I've written a script using the dome's humidity sensor, when it shuts down everything else it checks and if it's above 65% it runs for 5min. Then it checks again and either stops, or keeps going for another 5min. After 2hrs it stops regardless.

For much of the year it doesn't run but even through summer there are some pretty humid/damp nights. Everything still gets wet during the observing run of course but it means the mirrors and electronics etc get dried out pretty quickly. Through winter I have it run for 30min every day mid morning just to keep the general damp or mold at bay given it might not open for weeks at a time when the weather gets grim.


Getting your whole setup working really smoothly when it's close to hand will save you a huge amount of heartache later on! It would be ideal for all our remote telescopes to be somewhere really remote, edge of a desert, top of a mountain etc but the reality is there are always niggles to attend to - more so when you are setting up.

Last edited by jamespierce; 27-05-2020 at 09:53 AM.
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Old 02-06-2020, 01:10 PM
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Nice setup James. I have a V1 dome which has just been retrofitted with a contact kit and new controllers after an umbilical cord mishap. I generally do skyflats on my system but I do like your lighting setup for flats and illumination.

I have been doing setups of ScopeDomes for a while now. The domes are second to none with thick heavy walls, complete robotic capability, and solid software. Attention to detail on the silicone sealing is very important with the new domes. The large main shells of the dome are very heavy and require some expertise to lift those into place. Making sure that all the base ring is completely level with no more than 2-3mm variation is also important.

For those that want one of these domes but don't feel confident putting one together and commissioning it, I offer a service with approval from ScopeDome Australia (Steven). Steven's installation brochure is very good and easy to follow though. Feel free to contact me if you are interested in having the installation done for you.
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