What do astronomers do at an observatory?

Before using a research telescope, an astronomer submits a proposal detailing project goals and equipment needs for approval by a committee of other astronomers. In some cases, even when a project is approved, the astronomer never visits the observatory at all. Instead, telescope specialists operate the instruments and gather data for the astronomer.

When an astronomer does travel to an observatory, the engineers, electricians, opticians, computer scientists, cooks, and crew who live there prepare for the astronomer’s “observing run,” which typically lasts a few nights. The astronomer sleeps through the day, then spends a few hours before sunset preparing for the observations. After dinner, when night falls, the observations begin.

The astronomer spends the entire night pointing the telescope at distant objects — planets, stars, nebulae, or galaxies — and collecting the faint trickle of light from each object. A computer stores the data for later analysis. If clouds spoil the observations, the astronomer must submit a new proposal and hope for clear skies next time.

The astronomer never actually looks through the telescope, although most telescopes have a video system to display the area of the sky at which the telescope is aimed. Instead, the astronomer generally remains in the lighted, heated control room and monitors both the telescope and instruments as they collect and record data.

After completing an observing run, an astronomer may spend months or years analyzing and interpreting the results. Meanwhile, back at the observatory, the staff prepares for the next astronomer.

Shopping Cart
Scroll to Top