Observing Trip Guide
General Notes for First-Time Observers
If you’re on a mountain, the air can be quite dry and possibly dusty if you’re in the desert. If you suffer from asthma or a skin condition that is exacerbated by dry and dusty conditions, call ahead to ask about a humidifier for your room, and if none are available then bring a portable one with you.
You'll probably be on a weird sleep schedule, in a new time zone, possibly with jet lag. Arrive a day early to adjust, if you can. When you need to be awake, be in a well-lit room. Remember that caffeine has a long half-life (5-6 hours, so if you slam 4 coffees at 3am to stay awake, you're still at 2 coffees at 9am and 1 coffee at 2pm the next day!) so quit early. When you need to be winding down or sleeping, make it as dark as possible. Sleep aids can help a lot—some people swear by melatonin for reseting circadian rhythms; diphenhydramine (Benadryl) is a generally safe and over-the-counter hypnotic, but doesn't work for everyone. Avoiding seeing dawn can help a lot (if possible.)
If you'll be at elevation be sure to take it easy for the first day or so—low oxygen will make you get winded quickly. At high elevations (above, say, 10,000 ft) it is extra imprtant to have a detailed observing plan. Low oxygen will make you stupid, and you'll need the notes to avoid making mistakes. Also, if you are prone to altitude sickness ask your doctor about Diamox.
If you will be in a remote region, make extra sure you have everything you really need in case you have to stay longer or get stuck at the observatory (due to weather, for instance): medications, work to do, etc.
Have someone who knows the place give you the chef's tour the first time you visit an observatory. You might even get ideas for new things to do there.
If there are other observers present, stop by during their observations in an unobtrusive way and say 'hi'. Find out what they're working on. Learn new instruments, modes, and science (but stay out of the way if things get busy).
If there is one, be sure to get the public tour and visit the gift shop; even the corniest branded souvenirs make fun gifts when the recipient knows you're a professional astronomer that's been to a famous mountain.
If you are the outdoorsy type you may enjoy hiking around the observatory; make sure you know about the safety of the trails (wildlife, sudden storms, etc) and have a good map (GPS may not work without cell service).
General Packing list for all observatories
- Jacket, hat, and gloves (it's cold at night, and at elevation)
- Flashlight (it's dark at night)
- Close-toed shoes (most observatories are in wilderness)
- Aspirin, tylenol/acetaminophen and/or ibuprofen (dehydration headaches from altitude/air travel)
- Moisturizer and lip balm (observatories tend to be very dry)
- Good, soft tissues (pollen + dry air + rough tissues = bad)
- Sunscreen (clear skies + elevation = lots of UV)
- Sunglasses ("Blue blockers" may help with shifting schedules)
- Phone charger (zero signal chews up batteries; consider airplane mode)
- Electrical adaptors (if you're abroad)
- Dongles (especially for ethernet)
- Memory stick and/or external harddrive (to grab data / logsheets)
- Passport (Obviously if going abroad; but also anywhere just north of the US/Mexico border, which is heavily patrolled for immigration violations)
- Women: period supplies. Observatories are poorly stocked and a surprise period is no fun.
- Warm socks- change in schedule + altitude will bork your internal temperature regulation, especially when trying to sleep. Wool socks or similar will help in middle of night when you can't sleep because your toes are freezing.
More Advanced Packing Ideas
Here are some ideas for things to bring observing on a longer observing run (less useful for a short and/or first time) that are a bit less obvious.
- Head lamp with several brightness levels and red light rather than a flashlight. This helps keep your hands free to fix/manipulate things in the dark.
- Powdered gatorade - hard to find in powdered form now a days, but works wonders for hydration fight headaches and has some calories. I always get head aches from travel and staying at altitude, so hydration and tylenol, ibuprofen, etc. what ever works best for you.
- Headphone to RCA cable - helps get your taste of music from your phone, laptop etc. onto the control rooms stereo/receiver. Be sensitive and democratic for music volume and choices if you are observing with others.
Multi tool - I find that one with scissors is actually the item I use most on a multi-tool. Plus the blade helps with food prep, because if you need one the observatory kitchens generally have very dull knives. Although maybe that's for the best because slicing hand on a mountain at night is not good.
Ethernet cable - Almost never ever used, but once in a blue moon it was great to have.
Caffeine - If you're going to a new observatory pack some starbucks via instant (It is the only instant coffee I can tolerate), small bag ground coffee, or tea until you find out what they normally have available.
"Happy light"/ SAD blue light - things like the Philips goLite Blu can be amaze when you start to get sluggish around 2am
Observatory Specific Tips and Guides
- Green Bank Observatory
- McDonald Observatory
- Palomar Observatory
- Kitt Peak Observatory:
- There is a Border Patrol Checkpoint on Ajo Way/AZ-86 a few miles past Three Points/ Robles Junction right at the edge of the reservation. Stops don't happen often to West bound traffic (to the telescope), but you will be stopped on the way back to Tucson.
- If you tell the nice folks at the Visitor's Center that you're an observer you will get 10% whatever you buy
- If the weather is crummy in the middle of your run: Go to Sells to the Desert Rain Cafe for Tohono O'odham meals at lunch. Prickly pear glazed ribs are a special on Thursdays and are Erin recommended.
- Alcohol is not allowed at KPNO or anywhere else on the reservation.
Please add to this list!