Everything you need to know for your first in-person observing run!

Authors: Archana Aravindan, Olivia Rae Cooper, Katya Gozman, Megan Masterson, Maria Vincent, Samantha Wong

Top: Four white observatory domes sit on a mountaintop with a narrow road leading to the summit. There are puffy white clouds behind the domes and a clear turquoise sky above.
Bottom: Five white observatory domes sit on a mountaintop with a narrow road leading through. There is a clear blue sky above.
The pristine views of Maunakea and the telescopes on the summit. Top Panel: (L-R) Subaru Telescope, the twin telescopes of WM Keck Observatory, and NASA Infrared Telescope Facility (NASA IRTF) (Photo Credit: Maria Vincent). Bottom Panel: (L-R): NASA IRTF, Canada France Hawaii Telescope, Gemini North Telescope, University of Hawai’i 88-inch, United Kingdom Infrared Telescope (Photo Credit: Archana Aravindan)

If you’re reading this article, that probably means that a proposal you and/or your collaborators have toiled over was successful! But now that you’ve been awarded time on a telescope that still allows for in-person observing, what’s next? 

First and foremost, congratulations!! You are one of the few people in the world that get to travel to some of the most remote corners of the Earth to pull a string of all-nighters to study the universe. Though this may seem daunting and overwhelming at first, we hope that this guide can help you better prepare for your trip and give you some insight from current graduate students who have traveled to a major research telescope. This article is broken up into four sections – things to keep in mind or do before, during, and after your trip, and miscellaneous tips.

Disclaimer: Each observatory and facility is different. The tips gathered here were compiled by a group of Astrobiters who have had a wide range of observing experiences at different telescopes – from data collection in Chile to engineering work in Hawaii – so we mean for this guide to be a general, non-exhaustive resource that can apply to different situations.

Top: A blazing red-orange sun sets behind some low mountains. A large telescope dome and stairs leading from a platform are on the right side of the image.
Bottom: A mountain with a narrow winding road leading to a summit with two domes. To the right, the sky is awash in golden orange light of the sunrise.
A view of the Magellan telescopes as the sun sets (top) and rises (bottom) on the Atacama Desert (Photo Credit: Katya Gozman)
Left: A blue and red cloudy sky hangs above a green mountain that shows two small domes at the top. A building made of stone is at the right foreground.

Right: A narrow winding road snakes through a green mountain range. The sky is mostly cloudy and very distant rain cane be seen falling at the right side of the image.
The Mount Hopkins area where Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory is located. Right: Fire and Ice– The Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory dorms and the MMT observatory (at the top of the mountain) at sunset during a storm. Left: The mountain road up to the dorms at the Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory (the VERITAS telescope is at the bottom!) (Photo Credit: Samantha Wong)

Before You Leave

  • If you’re observing in a different country, make sure to look up the entry requirements early – do you have a passport? Do you need to apply for a visa and if so, can the observatory provide a letter of invitation? Does the country have guidelines on COVID vaccinations or any other vaccinations/medical requirements?
    • Some facilities, like Keck Observatory,  may require you to complete additional procedures, especially if you will be working with hardware, or operations software, i.e. beyond a mere observing run to comply with the institution’s security restrictions (like Export Control). These need to be looked into at least a month or two before your planned visit as various factors including and not limited to your citizenship and residency can affect the timeline of the process. 
  • Fill out any required forms the observatory needs from you, including details of your arrival and departure, your observation plan, meal preferences, etc. These should be communicated to you either by email or on the observatory’s website, which usually has a section for astronomers. Do this well in advance!
  • Prepare a detailed observing plan beforehand so you know exactly what to do and when during the actual run. This includes, but is certainly not limited to:
    • Have all the info you need on your objects clean and organized – their coordinates, altitude vs. time charts, exposure times, instrument set-up details like filters/gratings to use, etc. 
    • Make contingency plans for what to observe and how to adjust your program if the weather or seeing isn’t what you want, the instrument or telescope is malfunctioning, etc. 
    • Be familiar with what procedures you need to do & who to contact if technical issues or inclement weather occur during your observing run!
    • I’ve seen astronomers who plan their run by the minute when they want to be taking data on each of their objects so they don’t lose unnecessary time. Your advisor can help you plan a lot of this and may have tips on a good organizational system.
  • Make sure to look into your university’s reimbursement process and understand beforehand how to pay for your plane ticket, lodging, meals, etc. Sometimes your advisor or department directly pays the observatory bill, other times you have to pay and get reimbursed. If the department approves an advance payment to help bear onsite expenses (meals and ground transportation from the airport to observatory headquarters), look into that option as well. Talk to your college/department’s accounting office when arranging travel/lodging details as well, since they’ll be the final sign-off on reimbursements. Plus they usually get paid to help you with this stuff.
  • If you’re going to another country, exchange currency beforehand at your local bank so you have cash on hand in case of emergencies, and let your bank/credit card companies know you’ll be traveling.
  • Talk to other people who have been observing at your telescope before! This could be your advisor, other people in your department, or friends from other universities that you know that have gone observing at your location. This is usually the best way to get pointers on what to expect and insider tips.
  • Get a good night’s sleep before the trip, because most likely you won’t be doing much of that on your run 🙃. Some folks like to slowly start adjusting their body to nocturnal mode a few days before so the switch isn’t so abrupt. You would likely need to stay up all night and be alert while observing, including if the weather is bad in case it clears up during the night. If you are not used to staying up for a long time (and if you have an extended observing run), you can try sleeping one hour later every night starting one week before your scheduled run.
  • If flying, especially internationally, get to the airport early. The rule of thumb is at least two hours before your flight starts boarding. This goes for any normal flight, but you don’t want to miss your observation window and forfeit the night(s) you worked so hard to get!
  • Some observatories do not allow you to observe from the summit. Instead, you will be observing from the observatory headquarters, which is typically located below the summit, or the remote observing rooms at partner institutions if one is close to your location. If you will be remote observing, make sure you separately arrange a trip to the summit to see the telescopes! Some observatories offer a tour of the telescope facility for first-time observers, while others don’t, so you would have to check with the observatory staff or your host at the observatory regarding tours to the summit (or ground for radio telescopes). Visiting the telescope is a good opportunity to learn more about the workings of the specific instrument suite you’re using for your observations. This will further enhance your understanding of the instrument, which is vital to optimizing your observing schedule. 
  • If it looks like you would need to drive yourself to the summit (which is typically unusual for students), make sure to rent a four-wheel drive. If you are not comfortable with driving a four-wheel drive, you can also look for rentals that offer a driver along with the vehicle. If you’re traveling to another country for observing, check whether their cars are typically automatic or manual, and make sure you get one you know how to drive! When traveling internationally also make sure to know which side of the road you’re driving on. Even automatic vehicles need to be geared down when driving down the steep roads at some mountaintop observatories. Some observatories also offer vehicles for observers to drive.
  • If you’re observing remotely, install and test the remote observing software, which will be specific to the observatory and instrument. The remote software login/access starts working within 24-48 hours before your observing period, which gives time to address any issues that may arise. Check in with your support astronomer(s) for assistance, and make sure you can log in and access everything you need before the night of the run. If you’re in a different time zone than the telescope (likely in this case!), double check your time zone conversion so you know what time to start setting up and over what time frame you’ll need to be awake. 
  • Make sure you know when your shift starts and ends! Many observatories operate on coordinated universal time (UTC), which can be significantly offset from the local time. Additionally, the dates of first and last night of observations usually correspond to the start of the night, so you may actually end your shift a day after you’re scheduled.
  • Make sure you know of any safety information about the site, including dangerous animals, plants, etc. It’s often nice to go for a walk or run to get some fresh air when you have time, but make sure you know how to do so safely or if there’s anything you need to watch out for. 
  • A non-exhaustive packing list: this can widely differ depending on the location you go to and the time of year/season.
    • Your passport and any necessary immigration documents if going to another country, else a form of ID. Some places give you an observer’s car to drive from the dorm to the telescope, so be sure to have your driver’s license with you if so. Check your observatory’s website beforehand to see if they require a certain form of ID.
    • Many observatories are in deserts and on mountains where the conditions can vary greatly between day and nighttime. Bring layers so you can adjust accordingly. The summit is often colder than you expect it to be, especially at night!
    • Sneakers or a good pair of boots if going to a cold/snowy location – the area around observatories is usually rough, with many roads being gravel/unpaved. Some telescopes are also in locations that host wildlife such as venomous spiders or scorpions, so we’d recommend wearing comfy and sturdy closed-toed shoes.
    • If going during the winter, a pair of gloves, especially if you’ll be working in the dome with the instrument.
    • Any toiletries you require.
    • OTC medications like painkillers are good to have handy just in case, though some observatory medics may also be able to provide you with them. Some observatories are at high enough altitude that you may want to bring altitude sickness medication.
    • Any prescription medications. Be sure to look up the policy on bringing your medication(s) to other countries if you’re traveling internationally. 
    • Any electronics you need such as computers/tablets, chargers, and power/plug adapters if going to another country. Some observatories, like Magellan, have US-style plugs in the control rooms, but this varies between observatories, so it’s always best to have an adapter.
    • Lip balm and moisturizer: many observatories are situated in the driest places in the world. And we mean dry. If your observing run is extended (more than a couple days), your skin and lips can become extremely dry and chapped, so save yourself the discomfort and bring along products to help keep them moisturized. Just try to avoid bringing in anything made from agricultural products (more on this below). 
    • A book or entertainment for the plane, especially if you’re flying far. Many observatories are situated in remote locations, so the trip there can be long. Going from the US to Chilean observatories, for example, can take a full 24 hours! Noise-canceling headphones or earbuds are especially nice to drown out the noise of the plane/airport.
    • If you have room, a pair of binoculars and/or a camera are great to have to capture the beautiful dark night sky. 
    • If your observatory does not have a cafeteria, make sure you stop for groceries on the way and bring enough food for your stay. Sometimes you’ll have time to go grocery shopping during bad weather, but observatories are usually pretty far away from the nearest stores, so it’s good to be overprepared. 
    • A flashlight that has a red setting! 
  • What NOT to bring:
    • Some locations such as Chile, Australia, New Zealand, and Hawaii have very strict restrictions on the importation of food/plant/agricultural products because of concerns over the local ecosystem, requiring you to declare any such items and fill out a separate form. If going to such countries, we recommend you avoid the hassle of bringing anything agricultural of nature, including any food (fresh fruits and vegetables), with you. Most major observatories have cafeterias that provide meals for astronomers! Check with the state or embassy website for entry requirements and limitations on what’s allowed to be carried across the border.
    • Some observatories provide things like towels, soap, and shampoo, so no need to bring those along unless you’d prefer your own.
Left: A large mirror constructed out of many mosaiced hexagons stands in the center. A woman stands to the right smiling at the camera, holding her arms out as if to hug the telescope. She has long wavy brown hair and is wearing a blue sweatshirt and white shorts.

Right: A giant metallic half-rhombicuboctahedron dome takes up most of the image. A woman stands to the left, smiling at the camera. She has shoulder-length brown hair and is wearing a purple shirt underneath a grey knit vest and purple leggings.
Left: Samantha Wong at one of the VERITAS gamma-ray telescopes before an observing run (Photo Courtesy: Samantha Wong). Right: Katya Gozman standing by the Clay Telescope dome at Magellan (Photo Courtesy: Katya Gozman).

While on Site

  • Observatories generally have dorms for astronomers to stay at. Usually they are a little below the summit where the telescope is on, and you can travel to and from either by foot or by car. Don’t expect a luxury hotel, but many dorm rooms have a bed and blankets, a desk to sit at, and a bathroom with a toilet and shower. The windows also generally come with black-out blinds or curtains that block out all light – these are important both for you as an astronomer who is trying to sleep during the day and also for the observatory to make sure stray light from the dorms doesn’t ruin observations, so make sure to keep these closed at night.
  • They also generally have cafeterias with chefs hired to cook for the astronomers and personnel. Each observatory has a different schedule of when meals are served; generally breakfast is a little after sunrise, lunch is during the day (which you’ll probably miss most days since you’ll hopefully be sleeping after a long night!), and dinner is before sunset so that astronomers and operators have time to get back to their instruments to take twilight calibration frames. You can also order night lunch, usually through an online form, which is a meal that’s delivered to the observatory or that you bring up with you that you can eat during your run. Many observatories also have a small kitchen near the control room filled with various drinks (water, tea, coffee, juice, milk, soda, etc.), snacks to munch on like cereal and cookies (anything to keep you awake), a minifridge, and a microwave and/or toaster oven for reheating food.
    • Some observatories do not have a functioning cafeteria depending on when you observe (and also because of the rise of PJ or remote mode observing, where you don’t need to travel to the observatory to observe!). There may be a limited supply of food near the observatory (and they also close much earlier than when you typically begin observing), so make sure you make the necessary arrangements for food on the nights you are scheduled to observe.
  • Observatories can have very fragile ecosystems – be mindful of the land you’re on, don’t disturb local flora and fauna. That wild donkey may look cute, but it likes its personal space as much as the next living being.
  • If you’re driving on the mountain, it is extremely important to obey all posted road signs and drive extra cautiously on steep, winding mountain roads. If you drive around at night, be sure to use only your hazard lights when driving near the telescopes so as to not pollute other astronomers’ observations! Drive slower than you think you need to!
  • If you’re at a site with multiple observatories, it’s worthwhile to tour the other telescopes during bad weather or during the day. Make sure you check with the staff/observers on shift, but they’re usually happy to show you around and talk about their telescope and instruments. 
Top: A woman with brown wavy hair stands with her arms stretched out and is smiling. She wears a dark blue jacket and long green pants. Behind her are 4 white telescope domes on a mountaintop with white clouds in the back.

Bottom left: A woman with dark black hair makes a peace sign at the camera. Her hair is partly standing up due to wind. She wears a checkered quarter-zip and jeans and behind her are white telescope domes on a red-orange dirt mountain, with white clouds behind and a blue sky above.

Bottom right: A woman with dark sunglasses stands with her arms crossed and smiles into the camera. She wears a Mickey mouse themed sweatshirt and blue jeans. She stands on red-brown rocks and dirt. Behind her is a stout cylinder-shaped silver telescope dome.
Up above the clouds so high! Just your neighborhood astronomers chilling at the top of Maunakea. As you can tell from the jackets and jumpers, and the wind in the hair, it’s quite chilly and windy up there even on a sunny day. Top: Olivia Rae Cooper at the summit with Subaru, Keck and NASA IRTF in the background (Photo Courtesy: Olivia Rae Cooper). Bottom: Maria Vincent at the summit. Right: (L-R): James Clerk Maxwell Telescope, Subaru and Keck on the Background, Left: Subaru in the background (Photo Courtesy: Maria Vincent). These photos were taken from the accessible summit of Maunakea. The true summit is not accessible to visitors and is a deeply sacred place for Native Hawaiians.

As you are observing

Top: A long desk with a multitude of computer screens showing various GUIs and programs that control a telescope and its instrument.

Bottom left: A woman  with medium-length brown hair and glasses sits in an office chair and smiles at the camera. She wears a dark blue-green scarf and a grey fleece jacket. Behind her are 3 computer screens showing scientific GUIs.

Bottom right: Two women smile at a camera. Behind them is a desk with four computers arranged in a 2x2 square with various scientific GUIs and control panels open. On the right side of the desk is a computer open with a Zoom meeting in progress.
Behind the scenes of observations and discoveries! Top: Magellan Clay Control Room in 2022. The leftmost computers are for astronomers to control their instrument(s), the rightmost are for the telescope operator to control the telescope and dome. The middle computer is dedicated to Zoom for remote observers (Photo Credit: Katya Gozman). Bottom left: Katya Gozman at the Magellan Clay Control room (Photo Courtesy: Katya Gozman). Bottom right: Suchitra Narayanan (L) and Olivia Rae Cooper (R) at the Institute for Astronomy remote observing room in Honolulu during Olivia’s Keck observing run. Pictured on the four large screens are the MOSFIRE GUIs (Photo Courtesy: Olivia Rae Cooper).
  • Most of the largest telescopes have dedicated telescope operators who are in charge of the safety of the instrument during the run and move the dome and telescope to the positions you want to observe. They are your best friend up there – be nice to them and remember that it’s always their call on whether it’s safe for the telescope to open.
  • On that note, it’s more than just cloud cover that dictates if observing can proceed. Wind speed and humidity also play an important role, and observatories will generally set limits for how fast the wind can be or how high the humidity can reach before needing to close the dome for the safety of the instruments. Many observatories have weather stations that let you track this information.
  • Make sure you check with observatory staff on when you will take calibration data. Sometimes calibrations will start earlier in the day (e.g. it’s always at 3pm at Magellan), sometimes they’ll be done around sunset (or sunrise, but usually you just want to go to sleep!), and sometimes you’ll do calibrations during your run. Every observatory, telescope, and instrument can be different, so make sure you’re aware of what to do for your run!
  • Always have a Plan B, C, and D in case the weather does not cooperate or if you run into any other technical difficulties. You would have typically thought of backup programs while submitting your proposal, but oftentimes, you might under- or overestimate exposure times and end up with saturated (or not) frames. Telescope time is precious but remember to not panic if your frames do not turn out as expected. Stay calm and think quickly on your feet! 
  • If you’re at an observatory that also houses radio telescopes or other radio-sensitive equipment, be sure to check their policies on electronic devices. Most radio telescopes are in a “quiet zone” so that signals from phones, etc. don’t interfere with observations. Be courteous of these rules.
  • Take detailed notes! First, write down procedures and any tips and tricks for telescope and instrument operation. Second, create and maintain an observing log, which tracks important information such as weather and observing conditions, any exposures or frames that may have issues, the file numbers for the calibration images, etc. Your advisor or colleagues may have a template observing log/worksheet, or you can create your own. These notes will be incredibly useful during reduction, analysis, and paper writing!
  • If you have some down time, for example when a colleague is in charge of observations, or when long exposures are running and it’s safe to step away, take a moment to step outside and soak up the night skies! Telescopes live in places that have some of the darkest, clearest skies on Earth. On a clear night, you may even be able to see the Milky Way, which ⅓ of humanity (and 80% of Americans) cannot see from where they live.
  • At some observatories you regularly have a lot of downtime (e.g., if taking long observing runs or waiting for the weather to clear), so it’s good to bring stuff to do (e.g., books, knitting, video/board games, research work) to keep yourself awake and occupied.
  • Do not observe on an empty stomach! Small, frequent snacks can also be a good strategy for staying awake.
  • Observing for multiple nights can take a toll on your body – stay hydrated and see tips from a seasoned observer on how to have healthier observing runs.
  • If you’re unsure of anything, don’t be afraid to ask for help!! Observatory personnel are generally very friendly and love helping first-timers at the site.
  • Take care of your health at all times! When you’re observing at the facility, the dome/summit temperatures, along with caffeine consumption to stay awake, can dehydrate you very easily, so make sure you are drinking plenty of water. At high altitudes, if you start feeling dizzy or lightheaded, and experience shortness of breath, get help immediately. All high-altitude facilities have supplemental oxygen in portable tanks you can carry with you at all times. If that doesn’t cure your hypoxia, and you experience other symptoms of altitude sickness, seek assistance from your colleagues who may have medication on hand (if you haven’t brought any with you) or will take you down to base camp. Additional medical help will be provided there. Some observatories also have a paramedic on site, especially if they are extremely far from civilization, that you can go to for help.
Left: A woman with wavy dirty blonde hair smiles at the camera as she leans over a desk and points to an image on the computer in front of her. 

Right: At the foreground, a computer screen with many windows open showing controls and images from a telescope. In the background, a sun-set tinted mountain rises through a window.
More photos from observing runs. Right: Samantha Wong in the VERITAS control room. On the screen is the all-sky cam that’s showing the pulsar target that we’re currently observing (Photo Courtesy: Samantha Wong). Left: Remote observing with Magellan from the residence at Teide Observatory, overlooking Mt. Teide (Photo Credit: Megan Masterson).
Left and right pictures show show a dark night sky filled with many stars. The left image also has the prominent dust lane of the Milky Way arcing across the sky.
The Night Sky at Magellan, as captured by a 20 second phone exposure (Photo Credit: Katya Gozman)

After a night of observing

  • Congratulations, you’ve just completed your first observing run!! It’s always rough transitioning from nocturnal to daytime schedule (especially if you observe continuously on multiple nights), so be kind to yourself and allow yourself time once you get back to recuperate and recharge. 
  • Check that you know how and where to access the data you took. Are they automatically uploaded to an archive, and do you need a password to access it? Alternatively, you may have to remotely transfer the files from the observatory’s machine to your local machine.
  • Make sure you give yourself some time (preferably after the run) to explore the local areas and try the local cuisine!

When on summit for other work

  • Another possible work at telescopes is for an engineering project, especially if you are a part of an instrument development team, and you proposed to test and/or commission a new instrument at an observatory. The above guidelines for observing still apply and there are a few more:
    • Ensure that you have read and understood the safety guidelines surrounding your work and conduct around the telescope hardware. All observatories require you to undergo an orientation and safety training beforehand, to familiarize yourself with the environment and reduce the risk of accidents. 
    • Plan your work ahead of time to make sure you have all the supplies and materials you need for the day. Once you go up to the summit, it will be difficult to travel back and forth because of missing equipment.
    • Make sure you are dressed appropriately! All labs have specific requirements for attire and footwear, which are all the more important at the summit. Steel toe boots are mandatory, which not only protect your feet from accidental drops and injuries, but also reduce the chance of cramps and frost-bite.
    • Keep your hands warm, as cold fingers can increase the difficulty of working with hardware and machine parts as small as screwdrivers and hex keys.
Left: a woman with long black hair and a blue coat stands in front of a complicated and large instrument that has many wires and parts.

Right: A selfie of a woman wearing a haircap who is standing behind an array of astronomical instrumentation.
Maria Vincent at the heart of some important instrumentation Left: Nasmyth platform of Subaru Telescope, with the system for the facility adaptive optics and the extreme adaptive optics bench in the background. Right:The Keck II adaptive optics room. (Photo Courtesy: Maria Vincent)
Left: The dark slopes of mountains behind a sky that transitions from orange-red to dark blue. The rightmost peak has two telescope domes.

Upper right: An orange and yellow tinted cloudy sky over a grassland with many shrubs and a few white small white telescope domes.

Bottom left: A grassy and shurby landscape with two prominent white telescope domes. To the left is a gravel road. The sun is setting, coloring the sky with rainbow hues from blue to red as you look down to the horizon.
The beauty of the twilight at great heights. Left: Sunset over Magellan with the Swope and du Pont (currently taking data for SDSSV!) telescopes also visible to the left. The small white dot in the photo is Venus. Top Right: Sunset at Teide Observatory in Tenerife. Off to the right, you can just barely see Mt. Teide peeking out over the landscape, a place where Megan Masterson spent 3 weeks in 2023 and 2024 as a TA for an undergraduate astronomy field camp. Bottom Right: Another sunset from Teide observatory, this time looking away from Mt. Teide. The dark line in the sunset is the shadow of the mountain! (Photo Credit: Megan Masterson)

Astrobite edited by Amaya Sinha
Featured image credit: Maria Vincent and Archana Aravindan

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