Observatory Security

Observatory Security

 

Purpose

With more amateur astronomers constructing observatories to house their astronomical equipment, theft of such equipment is on the rise.  While many of us believe that break-ins and theft only happen to other people, nothing could be farther from the truth.  The purpose of this document is to better equip astronomers with the knowledge of fundamental physical security safeguards that should be in place to protect their observatory and its contents.

Security is often considered an additional expense with no real immediate payback.  Let’s face it, if your security is working properly, you’ll never know; it’s only when not enough security has been implemented that it catches our attention.  It is imperative that an astronomer be willing to spend an extra few hundred dollars properly protecting the thousands, or tens of thousands of dollars worth of equipment contained within an observatory.

While I do discus a number of techniques, strategies, and technologies in this document, I intentionally do not refer to specific products.  I do this because the concepts contained in this best practice are product neutral, and any number of products can be utilized to accomplish the desired goals.

It should be noted that nothing will stop a determined thief; where there’s a will, there’s a way.  The goal of a prudent and security minded astronomer is to either deter a casual thief, or to make the risk of being caught significantly that a more determined thief will move on to easier targets.  The guidelines that follow do not guarantee that you will not suffer a theft or break-in; they are simply best practices that should be implemented to reduce the risk.

For the purposes of this document, I will be discussing security in three stages, overall awareness, external observatory security, and internal observatory security.  The rationale of this strategy is as follows:

 

  • Security Awareness – If we minimize the possibility of people knowing what we have and where we have it, it reduces the possibility of being targeted for theft
  • External Observatory Security – If someone does approach your observatory with the intent of theft, the goal is to make this as uncomfortable and difficult as possible.  External security is about stacking deterrents; if the observatory appears to be too much trouble to break into, the thief will move onto easier prey;
  • Internal Observatory Security – If anyone enters your observatory (assuming you have implemented some of the external security safeguards), they are very determined to steal your equipment.  At the point which they enter your structure, they are completely committed to the task, and are aware of the contents; the goal now becomes to minimize loss.

Security Awareness

Being an amateur astronomer means being part of a community.  We’re often members of various organizations, web sites and forums.  Many of us also have our own web sites to showcase our own trials and successes with the hobby, discussing our equipment, posting our pictures, and even blogging our activities.  One should be careful however, to remember that something posted on the internet is visible to everyone, and not everyone has the same love of our hobby, or respect for our property.  There are some basic guidelines that everyone should follow to make themselves less of a target for would-be thieves:

  • Community/Club Web sites
    • Most web sites and community forums allow you to register and list your location.  Never list your address.  Some would argue that you should not even list your city or province;
    • Forum signatures are often populated with equipment lists and GPS coordinates by amateur astronomers.  Although we are all proud of the equipment we own, we should not list is where it is publicly available, it just makes you a target for anyone looking to steal a particular piece of equipment.  Likewise, never list your GPS coordinates!
    • Never list any information  that can help someone determine where you live, or your daily routine;
    • If you’re going on vacation, announce it upon your return.  Its best not to announce to the world that you are away for a particular period of time;
  • Personal Web Sites
    • The same rules as above apply to personal web sites;
    • If you own your own domain name, be aware that you probably registered it with your personal address.  If this is the case, and your observatory/telescope equipment is located at this address, it is obtainable to anyone;
  • Blogs
    • Blogs are a great tool to allow us to share our observing activities, lessons learned, or even just for personal use to track our progress in certain areas.  The same rules as above apply to blogs.

The above suggestions are what would be considered the most effective method for keeping one’s identity and location secret.  The very nature of our hobby though almost necessitates that we discuss the equipment we use.  The intent here is to either keep this disclosure at a minimum, or decouple your online presence from the actual physical address of your observatory.

External Considerations

Physical Perimeter

Often, the physical location of the observatory is determined more by the space available, location of trees and buildings, and aesthetics, rather than security considerations.  There are a number of things we can do to deter would-be thieves, or at a minimum, make their job more difficult.

Try to locate the observatory where physical barriers limit access.  Fences, shrubs, large boulders, ponds, etc. all limit the directions from which a thief can approach your observatory

Construction

The construction of observatories is usually accomplished using wood or a stone product, such as brick or concrete.  Naturally, brick or concrete provide a greater measure of security, but are not desirable for everyone.  With wood sheeting or siding, the possibility does exist to cut or pry one’s way into the observatory; however this is very intrusive and not likely.  Some points of consideration when building your observatory are as follows:

  •  If using wood, consider embedding chain linking behind the outer sheathing/siding, or drilling holes in your studs and installing metal bar or rebar horizontally to act as another barrier
  • Where feasible, inner walls should be erected as another barrier to casual break and entry
  • Although aesthetically pleasing, windows allow for another potential entry point into the structure.  Any windows should be secured with bars to prevent entry, even if the window itself is broken or forced open… do not rely on window locks
  • By its very nature, an observatory has a large entry point overhead.
  • Domes should be constructed in such a way that they can not be lifted or removed from the structure, with shutters having a physical locking mechanism to prevent their being pried open.
  • Roll off roof (RoR) observatories should have turnbuckles (see appendix) installed to prevent the roof from being moved.  It’s preferred that turnbuckles be installed in all four corners.

External Lighting

Lighting acts as a partial deterrent to break-in, depending on the dedication of the potential thief.  Lighting can be installed on the observatory itself, or on nearby structures that are close enough to illuminate the observatory.  When installing external lighting, certain considerations should be taken into account:

  • All security lighting should be bright, white lights
  • Lighting should be located high enough to not allow easy removal or unscrewing of the lights
  • Motion sensors should be set for the broadest range possible while minimizing false illuminations.  The area of the observatory should be directly covered by the sensor’s view, while limiting activations from nearby vegetation
  • Any motion detection lights located on the observatory itself should be positioned to monitor areas of approach to the observatory.  As many angles of approach should be covered by as many lights as possible, with consideration taken to minimize false illuminations.
  • All external motion detection lights should be wired to a single switch inside the observatory, giving the astronomer the ability disable the lights while observing.

Cameras

While most thieves are deterred by the possibility of being seen, given that cameras are generally small and easy to overlook, they do not act as much as a deterrent as they do to record the act.  We will talk individually about the two purposes of camera;

  • Camera to deter – If a camera is being used to deter a crime, it must be as obvious as possible.  Such cameras should be near illumination sources to draw them to the attention of thieves, and should have “activation” LEDs on them to make them more obvious.  In most cases, a real camera does not even need to be used. Simply installing a dummy camera with battery powered LED, or a “Smile, you’re on camera” sign is enough.
  • Camera to record evidence – Cameras used to record evidence of a crime are not necessarily effective at deterrent, and depending on the quality of images captured and local law enforcement, may or may not be useful as evidence.  When installing cameras, the following should be considered:
  • Use a camera that supports IR (infrared) to allow for night shooting
  • Position your camera so that you are able to capture the individual(s) leaving the observatory with your equipment.  Care must be taken (and tests should be performed) to ensure that external lighting does not interfere with the camera’s ability to record
  • The camera can either be positioned inside the observatory, or outside.  In either case, it should be positioned as discretely as possible
  • The camera should be configured to record back to a separate secure structure (house), with the images/video being stored on robust media.  There are a number of cameras on the market that will record to digital video recorded (DVR), or directly to a computer via software.
  • Wireless cameras are preferred, so that if external wiring is cut, the camera will continue to function
  • Many camera/camera control software support motion-control activation.  Implementing such a camera will ensure that you are only recording when something is actually happening in the view of the camera, as opposed to recording months of unchanging video.

External Wiring

It is often preferred that permanent power is supplied to the observatory to run lights, telescopes, computers, etc.  While not all observatories are run from the house or power grid, when any sort of permanent cables are run from one location to the observatory, certain guidelines should be followed:

  • Power run to the observatory should be buried, and installed in accordance with your local code requirements.
  • Any data, phone or alarm cables should be installed in a conduit separate from that of AC power, and buried separately from power of a distance no less than 12 inches.
  • Demarcation points where wiring enters and exits buildings should be properly protected with appropriate termination points, and screwed into internal studs or adequately rigid structure

Entry points

The most common way to enter a structure or remove equipment is through the door.  Where possible, the door should be of solid construction and steel, equipped with quality locking mechanisms and deadbolts.  As many amateur observatories are based on a “garden shed” design, a heavy steel door is not always aesthetically desirable.  It is acceptable to install a decorative exterior door, given that the following safeguards are also implemented:

  • A robust locking mechanism should be used to secure the door.  One that allows for padlock is preferred
  • Any screws required to fasten the latch or locking mechanism should not be visible when the lock is engaged
  • If screws are visible when the lock is engaged, security screws (see appendix) should be used to reduce the possibility of their removal
  • Behind the decorative door, a steel door should be installed with robust lock.  This door can be either a typical external grade steel door used on houses, or a custom steel cage type door.

Regardless of the type of door used, it should be considered your last line of defense before a thief enters your observatory.  No expense should be spared on the cost or quality of locks, hinges, screws, or doors used.  You’re protecting thousands of dollars worth of equipment, invest in the lock that is $25 more.

At this point, we have covered what security should be implemented around the exterior of your observatory, right up to a potential thief at your door.  As previously stated, security is not about absolute protection; it’s about minimizing the risk.  A skilled and determined thief will be able to, with adequate thought, preparation and time to execute, defeat each of the safeguards we’ve described.  We now turn to the interior of the observatory, and what measures can be take to continue to make a thief’s task more difficult.

Internal Considerations

Security Alarm

Installation of various security alarm components can not only raise the level of risk for the thief substantially, but it is also the single most effective method for attracting attention to the crime.  Exterior lights can be triggered by a cat walking by, but an alarm sounding informs anyone within hearing range that someone is INSIDE the observatory.  There are a number of considerations to be taken into account when installing a security alarm, such as what triggers to use, where to install the control box, where to install the keypad, etc.  It is best to consult with a security company to determine the best security alarm installation for your purposes.  At a high level though, some things should be kept in mind:

  • For those in colder environments, special exterior motion detectors may be necessary;
  • Door switches should be installed on rigid doors;
  • A siren should be installed in the observatory to not only deter the thief, but to draw the attention of anyone in the area;
  • When cost effective, an alarm monitoring company should be used to validate alarms and dispatch law enforcement;
  • For anyone with a concern of being approached by a thief while they are alone and observing in the observatory, a panic button should be installed;
  • Audible alarms are preferred to silent alarms.  The only benefit of a silent alarm over an audible one is that it might allow the police to catch the thief in-the-act, but that is only assuming that their response time is less than the time required to complete the theft;
  • Audible alarms should continue to sound until they are disabled at the control box by entering an authorized code.  If an alarm company suggests that you limit the duration of the alarm to 30sec or 1min to minimize disturbing neighbors, inform the company that your property is more important to you than inconveniencing to any neighbors who would complain about the alarm.

Internal environment

For many of us, our observatory is like a home away from home, our pride and joy, and a place to relax and enjoy the night sky.  This is exactly as it should be, however we must also be careful to not be too comfortable as to make a thief’s job easier.

  • All tools necessary to dismantle the telescope should either be removed from the observatory when not in use, or securely locked up;
  • Where possible, replace bolts connecting pieces together with security bolts;
  • Any valuables should be stored in locking cabinets;
  • Locking cabinets should be screwed or bolted to the floor or walls of the observatory, from within the cabinet;
  • Very valuable equipment that is relatively small (eyepieces, eyepiece cases, CCDS, etc) should be kept in a safe bolted to the floor;
  • Installing a camera can catch a picture of the thief and record the actual act of the theft, assuming it is installed and monitored properly.  More information is located in the External Considerations – Cameras section.

Preparing for Insurance or Filing a Police Report

If the worst should happen and you do suffer a loss, you will want to file a police report.  While it is unlikely that law enforcement will actively investigate the break in or actively try to recover the stolen goods, it is good practice to be able to provide the police with as much detailed information as possible on the equipment taken.  If you have insurance covering the contents of your observatory, you will need this same information when filing your insurance claim.  The following information should be recorded and filed away safely, either at your primary residence, or preferably in a safe deposit box:

  • Pictures – Have pictures of every piece of astronomy equipment you have.  There is no reason not to take 30 seconds to take a picture of a piece of equipment; not only does it allow you to show the police what was taken (should it show up in a pawn shop), but also allows you to PROVE that you owned the equipment in the first place.  Always take the picture in such a way as to illustrate that you are the owner. (i.e. place the item on a piece of paper with your name, photo it in your observatory, etc);
  • Keep a file with all receipts of astronomy equipment purchases you have made.  Where you have purchased the items from another individual, print out and keep the email correspondence;
  • Keep a complete record of serial numbers.  While some receipts do contain serial numbers, many do not.  Taking a photo of the object’s serial number is a quick and easy method of record, especially if done when taking a picture of the item (as suggested above);
  • Keeping a note of any distinguishing marks or modifications is useful should the item turn up somewhere else.  If you are able to prove that you performed a certain modification, or that it was made while in your possession (again, pictures are helpful here), you can likely prove that the item is your stolen property.

Final Thoughts

Having one’s observatory broken into is in some ways no less violating that having your home invaded.  You know definitively that someone has been on your property, rummaging through your possessions, and are concerned that they will return.  You’ll likely never know if you were just the target of a random act of theft, or if you’d been specifically targeted and have been watched for days or weeks.  You’ll lie in bed wondering whether someone is creeping around your observatory, or if that sound you just heard is someone outside.  You will have new concerns about your children playing outside, or your spouse being alone at home.  All of this is natural, and will fade with time.  Rest assured that most thieves do not return immediately to attempt a subsequent theft immediately; they are aware that following an incident, the home owners are hyper-aware and diligent, and that the risk of being caught has increased.

Spend the days and weeks following your break in increasing the security posture of your property, not only to add to your own personal piece of mind, but also to deter future break-ins.  If you were an easy target before, your job is to not longer be an easy target, and if the thief returns, they will quite likely go elsewhere when confronted by your additional security measures.

In closing, I’d like to leave a few final thoughts on the subject, having been a victim of an observatory break-in:

  • Don’t approach a thief – Since being broken into, I’ve fantasized about what I would have done if I’d seen the break-in occurring.  There is only one intelligent reaction though, yell at them from the safety of your house/vehicle, and call the police;
  • While it might be tempting to seek some revenge on anyone who is going to break into our observatory, filling the pier tube with killer bees, or keeping a pet jaguar in your observatory is not wise.  In many location, if a potential thief injures himself on your property, YOU can be held accountable;
  • If you do suffer a break-in, or even a potential break-in, share the news.  Make sure your neighbors are on the lookout, inform local astronomy clubs, and post your experience to astronomy forums.  The more people who are aware and watching, the less the chance the thief will be successful in the future;
  • If you do suffer any losses, post them to the astronomy community.  Be sure to give as much detail as possible, including pictures if possible.  We can all decrease the profit in theft if we make it more difficult for stolen goods to be sold;
  • If you purchase anything online, make sure you’re doing so through a reputable seller.  Most of us love astronomy and are intimately familiar with our equipment.  If someone is selling a $5000 mount but can’t tell you how it works, it’s likely not a legitimate seller.

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