How to Observe
Observing is one of the biggest thrills — and one of the biggest challenges — in astronomy. This article presents advice for the new observer based on what I've learned over the course of almost 800 hours of observing. Although my expertise is in radio observing, I've tried to make the advice general enough to be useful for any observer.
- How to get to the telescope
- What sort of food and accommodations are available at the telescope
- How you operate the telescope
- What are the common observing strategies
- What calibration data you need
- What filters are you going to use?
- How do you want the spectrograph set up?
- What lines are you going to observe?
- What receiver are you going to use?
- What backend are you going to use?
- How do you want the backend set up?
- What lines and/or continuum frequencies are you going to observe?
- Most observatories are located in very dry locations. Pack lots of hand lotion, lip balm, and a water bottle.
- Bring — or buy on your way — any particular favorite snacks or beverages. The observatory will have a procedure in place for ordering or preparing a night lunch, but having your favorite candy or tea around at 4:00AM can provide a nice pick-me-up and energy boost. (And on that note, caffeine-free observing runs can work just fine! But you might want to substitute sugar, so be prepared!)
- Bring or borrow a pair of binoculars and GO OUTSIDE periodically during your nights. Check the weather, note where the clouds are (yes, even if there is a fancy cloud camera, it's still good to look at them with your own eyes), and look at the stars! That's why most of us got into astronomy in the first place, because we were fascinated by the night sky. You'll rarely have darker skies than during a run, so set a long set of exposures going and spend some time stargazing.
Inevitably, you will be unable to observe for some reason (clouds, humidity, dust, high winds, drop bears, etc.). One of the most pressing questions for beginning observers is how long should one wait before giving up and going to bed. One rule is: After twilight has ended, wait for one hour per meter of telescope aperture for the weather to improve. So if you have Keck time, you're stuck waiting all night, but only about half the night if you're using a 4m. However, rules on when to close are not universally well established; there are many variations, so make sure you're clear on what your supervisor expects. A variation of the one presented above is that going to bed on a cloudy night goes according to aperture in the following way: 1m telescope=1AM, 2m telescope=2AM, etc. But you don't have to! If there's a chance the clouds will clear, it's perfectly okay to wait for the entire night, especially if you're on a small telescope and are the only one in control. On larger ones, consider the advice of your operator. They know the sites very well!
- In the vein of bad weather, if your main science project requires good seeing, or photometric skies, or some other condition threshold, make sure you have back-up projects planned that can be done in poor seeing conditions, through thin clouds, etc. There are always bright variable stars that need light curves or orbital period measurements. Don't let your telescope time go to waste just because conditions aren't perfect!
- Have some redundancy when it comes to getting your data home. Carry a copy with you on DVDs, an external hard drive, or your computer (if you have enough empty space). Additionally, send a copy of your files back to a machine at your home institution in case your luggage gets stolen, your computer breaks, etc.
- Keep your own notes in either a physical or digital notebook, or both! Many telescopes have computer-generated logs, and of course the FITS headers should have many pertinent details, but having your own log can come in handy during the run (How long did I expose those perfect twilight flats yesterday?) and later on when you are processing the data (Why do these images look terrible? Oh, clouds!).
- It's a good idea to bring some common over-the-counter medicines with you, but if you run out, or don't have any, or need something different, most (all?) observatories have a medic on the mountain who can help you out if you become ill. Don't hesitate to ask!
- The bedrooms in the lodge have ethernet connections, but no wi-fi. The control rooms have both, but the ethernet is faster/more reliable.
- The bedrooms have blow dryers in them, but they are not very powerful. If you have long hair, you might want to bring your own, especially during the colder months when you won't want to be outside with wet hair.
- If you drop off your night lunch order on your way to bed, you don't have to worry about not getting one for the next night because you overslept and missed turning it in at regular lunch.
- It turns out it's not actually normal to find a lot of scorpions in your bedroom. Tell a staff member so they can set up a visit from the exterminator.
- If you are VPN'd into your home institution, you won't be able to access the (old) night report webpage, or the (new) internal environmental page. You can pull them up on another control room computer if you don't want to disconnect the VPN. You will have to disconnect to copy files over to your personal computer/hard drive.
- All of the bedrooms and control rooms have US-style outlets, so you don't technically need a converter/adapter, but it's not a bad idea to bring one just in case.
- CTIO maintains a list of restaurants near the Recinto (the AURA/CTIO/Gemini complex in La Serena) at http://www.ctio.noao.edu/misc/rest.html
- If you are staying overnight at the Recinto, the second key on your room keychain opens the first room at the motel, which is a small kitchen/common area where you can find water bottles, snacks, and ingredients for making a small breakfast. There's also a fridge, stove, and microwave if you want to store and reheat leftovers. Please clean up after yourself!
- If you find yourself with time to kill in the Santiago airport (but not enough time to leave the airport and explore the city), if you buy food or a drink at most (any?) of the restaurants, you can also ask for a wifi code so you can get online.
- The same advice goes for scorpions in the control rooms at Kitt Peak--let a staff member know if you are seeing them so the exterminator can be called.
- It is easiest to submit your night lunch order at the same time you submit your night report.
- There is no wi-fi or cell phone usage at Kitt Peak, because of the radio telescope. Make sure you can connect to the internet via ethernet if you bring your own computer.
- You'll prepare your own night lunch at dinner time. Make sure to label it before putting it in the shared fridge!!!
- The water is very hard — bring extra shampoo.