If you were asked to imagine an astronomer at work, what would come to mind? You might picture a bespectacled professor at a chalkboard, or a Renaissance figure peering through a handcrafted eyepiece and drawing charts with a compass and ruler. You might mix up terms a bit and think of someone in a space suit. If you kept thinking, chances are that pretty soon you’d imagine someone working with a telescope. While much of a modern astronomer’s work nowadays is done in front of a computer screen writing programs, using telescopes is still a crucial part of the job, and while some can be controlled remotely, in general someone has to actually be there.
So what is it actually like to work at a telescope? The best locations for observing the cosmos tend to be high altitude, dark, and dry, and the tops of mountains and barren desert are not places that people tend to go a whole lot, so you’re not likely to run across a professional observatory by chance. But astronomers who try to understand the Universe by observing it (as opposed to those who work primarily on developing models to explain those observations) crisscross the globe, heading to out of the way places on all seven continents. Yes, even Antarctica.
The standard operating procedure varies quite a bit among the observatories of the world. Some were built for a very specific purpose and are run by a dedicated team of scientists. Some accept proposals and award time to those scientists whose ideas they thought had the most merit, and those scientists must then travel to the telescope and use that time as best they can. Telescopes collecting visible and infrared light must operate only at night because the sun is so bright that nothing else can be seen in the day, while radio telescopes can observe 24 hours a day, and even see through the clouds if it isn’t clear!
This spring, I have been on observing runs at a couple of different observatories, so I’ll use them as examples to explain the joys and woes of the observing run. Look for those blogposts soon!