Weekend Diversion: An observatory made for fire

This summer, help the educational Black Rock Observatory shine at Burning Man!

“Catch on fire and people will come for miles to see you burn.” -John Wesley

Now that summer is upon us, it brings with it not only long, sunny days, but also warm nights where it’s pleasant to be outside, even long after sundown. As long as you Keep Your Lamps Trimmed & Burning, as John Fahey plays for you here (composed by Mississippi Fred McDowell),


you’re bound to enjoy the summer nights. But it takes the extinguishing of artificial lights to bring out the truly natural wonders of a dark sky!

Image credit: Tom Varden “Major Tom” of Black Rock Observatory, via http://www.blackrockobservatory.com/.

Of course, that isn’t possible everywhere you go, as light pollution from man-made sources can make finding darkness a difficult task. But there’s a partial solution that’s very successful for that as well: build a structure to block the light from external sources.

In astronomy, we’ve traditionally accomplished that by constructing a domed structure with a single opening for your telescope to point out of!

Image credit: Kerry Harrywood of Black Rock Observatory, via http://www.blackrockobservatory.com/.

While most observatories are built to be permanent structures, Black Rock Observatory — a project of the Burning Man stalwarts the Desert Wizards of Mars — has designed a set of wooden domed structures to house telescopes, art exhibits and general stargazing tours. Only, instead of being permanent structures, these are designed to be built incredibly quickly, to show off the wonders of the heavens for only a short duration, and then to be 100% combustible at the end of Burning Man!

Image credit: Major Tom of a 1:6 scale model, with a special thanks to team members Gregg Fleishman, Tupa, Luba, Keith Split, Captain Everything, Krista An, Matt and Charley, via http://www.blackrockobservatory.com/.

Even through the model alone, the night sky looks spectacular!

Image credit: Major Tom of http://www.blackrockobservatory.com/.

Designed by artist/architect Gregg Fleishman and based off of a 26-sided Archimedean solid first drawn by Leonardo da Vinci, the shape is called a Rhombicuboctahedron, with 8 triangular and 18 square faces. Of course, the dome doesn’t include all of those sides; it’s truncated for obvious structural reasons!

Images credit: Leonardo da Vinci (1509), left, and Gregg Fleishman, right, via their kickstarter page at https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/marsroverartcar/black-rock-observatory.

They built a Mars Rover Art Car last year for burning man, and this year, the plan calls for two domes complete with telescopes of various styles, perfect for showcasing the wonders of the night sky to all those interested who pass by! The big astronomical showpiece is a 20" f4.5 Newtonian telescope (Dobsonian style, of course), that I really hope they don’t wind up burning at the end.

Image credit: Kerry Harrywood, via http://www.blackrockobservatory.com/.

They’ve decided to run a kickstarter to help finance this, and with 17 days to go, they’re less than $5,000 shy of their $20,000 goal! In addition, they have a few stretch goals, including adding a solar observatory to (safely) view sunspots during the day, an open air observatory and a radio telescope on top of everything you see here.

Check out their kickstarter video.


As always with projects like these, they have giveaways for various levels of funding. There’s the typical fare, like digital photo downloads, song/album support, and bandanas and sweatshirts with the Black Rock Observatory logos on them.

Image credit: Black Rock Observatory, via http://www.blackrockobservatory.com/.

But they also have a few out-of-this world rewards, including:

  • nickel-iron meteorites,
  • martian meteorites, and most spectacularly,
  • a private tour and observing session at Mt. Wilson Observatory, the observatory used by Hubble and others to discover the expanding Universe nearly a century ago!
Image credit: Tom Varden / Major Tom, of the 60" telescope at Mt. Wilson.
Image credit: Tom Varden / Major Tom, of Saturn and five of its moons as seen through the 60" telescope at Mt. Wilson.

So I’m pleased to share this amazing project with you this weekend, and I hope it helps fire your imagination for the beauty and glory of the summer nights and skies coming up in the months ahead.

Have a great rest-of-your-weekend, check out the best of our comments from this past week, and I’ll see you back here tomorrow for more wonders of the Universe here on Starts With A Bang!