Case study of developing an affordable undergraduate observatory

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Astronomy is one of the few sciences where the data (star-light) can be seen by all. Yet, there is a disconnect between a typical undergraduate lecture and, for example, where a planet may be in the sky and how to observe it. With the advent of moderate cost, high-quality ‘back-garden’ astronomy, and standard computers powerful enough to produce original research, we show it is possible to build a small observatory capable of actual astrophysical research for a modest budget ≈ £ 30 000 . We detail the iterative process of planning, funding, results and student-projects, that we followed over 4 years from a Raspberry Pi camera and home-owned telescope, to a permanent roll-top observatory with two fully automated telescope systems capable of undergraduate use and astronomical science. We report on projects ranging from early-years projects based on observational planning, data analysis and some restricted actual observations, to more open-ended final-year projects to observe, e.g. planetary transits, variable stars or high-resolution planetary imaging. We hope this work may act as a blue-print or encourage and aid other small to medium sized higher-education institutions and astrophysics groups to also develop their own undergraduate observatory.

Original languageEnglish
Article number035014
Number of pages13
JournalPhysics Education
Issue number3
Early online date10 Mar 2023
Publication statusPublished - 31 May 2023

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
We gratefully acknowledge the students involved in this work (see author names in the main text) and Matt Smallwood who was a RAS funded summer student [7], Ewan R T Sloan who provided materials and aided in various building aspects and Malcolm Holley for technical assistance. We thank the University of Bath, the University of Bath Alumni Fund and the RAS for funding.

Data availability statement
The data used to generate figure 1(d) are openly available at the following URL/DOI: [8].


  • astronomy
  • astrophysics
  • observatory
  • undergraduate

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Education
  • General Physics and Astronomy


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