What life is like as an observational astronomer

Hi to whoever is reading this! I don't know how you found this, maybe you know me and decided to check out this blog. Maybe I shared the link and curiosity got the best of you. Maybe you are curious about what the work life of an observational astronomer is like and started to research it. Maybe you have no idea how you wound up on this page.

This is actually my first blog about what I do, partially because I've always wanted to share about the work I get to do, but have never gotten around to it. This job is an introverts dream, while simultaneously being an extroverts nightmare. Luckily for me, I'm a natural introvert, so I'm pretty okay with how removed from society I currently am. But it also so freaking cool what I do (I'm literally helping study the universe!), that I really want to share. I guess it might also help me stay slightly more sane talking about some of the stuff I do.

The view

Out of everything, one of the coolest thing about my job is the absolutely extraordinary view I see everyday!

I recently got an Iphone 11 pro mainly for the camera, not wanting to buy a DSLR. The wide angle does not disappoint! The clouds you see make for an amazing picture, but it generally means that observing conditions for the coming night will make it really difficult to get good data.

Sunsets are incredible

The sunset right outside the dorms that I stay at. Again, the clouds suck for taking astronomy data, meaning that the night probably will not be very productive in terms of taking data, unless they suddenly disappear which can happen on occasion.

Where I work

Physically, I work at the Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory in Arizona, and am staying on top a freaking mountain almost above the cloud level.

The mountain right next the the mountain I'm staying on. The elevation is high enough that the mountains will sometimes direct the clouds. 

The Ridge

I stay, sleep and eat at a place we call the ridge, cause well, it's located on a mountain ridge. I work at a telescope right next to the ridge. It was way more accommodating than I expected it was going to be. There is functional plumbing, a dorm like private room, satellite internet, a tv here and a pool table. TBH though, it's a good thing it is as the place is very isolated, especially when you stay up here all day, everyday for weeks at a time.

This is a stellar view of the ridge which is the square building with the teal roof on the far left. One of the telescopes I work with is in the group of three in the middle right of the picture. I would circle it, but don't really feel like editing the photo. Besides, it would ruin how great the photo looks!

Daily life that is not the actual job

Man, there are a lot of things that are much different than living in society! First, all of the food I eat is food I buy before driving up. The nearest grocery market I shop at is a Safeway about 1.5 hours from the ridge, meaning that it's not a place you go to everyday. 

I also go running at least once or twice a week to keep myself in sound cardio condition. Here's a selfie I took after running to the top of mountain (the experience of running up a mountain is about what you would expect running up a mountain to be like)

A few of selfies I took after running up the mountain. I'm next to the MMT (one of the bigger observatories here), which is why there is a fence. It's about 2.5 miles to get to the top of the mountain from where I start at the Ridge. 

Also the animals! There are so many animals here. I see different ones almost every week. I wish I had pictures, but they generally scurry away before I can snap a photo. Or I see them while driving, and hence can't take a photo. Here's a list of some encounters though
  • I see skunks nearly every week while driving up and down the mountain. Usually I have to slow down and wait as they raise their tails ready to spray the car.
  • There's also a bunch of coatimundis here too.
  • There are a lot of cows and deer too.
  • I saw a black bear driving up the mountain. A small one, but still very much a bear.
  • While running up the mountain once, my foot landed very close to the head of a beautiful red, black and white snake, possibly a coral snake. Should've taken a picture but was thinking more about how glad I was I didn't step on it and kept on running.
  • Rattlesnakes are common. 
  • My friend saw a pretty big mountain lion while driving to base camp. It was dark and hurried away quickly. Probably what I don't want to encounter more than anything else here.
  • There's a lot of bugs. Crickets, tarantulas, spiders in general, ants, and countless swarms of wasps.
  • By far my favorite animal, is a crow. Several times a week it will visit the ridge and just bang it's head against the large window pane here. I have no idea why it does this. Sometimes, I will try to sneak over to the window and suddenly pop my head out, startling it, which for me personally, is some of the better entertainment here.
There was this one time I was out walking while observing at the 1.5m. It is very, very dark, especially when the moon is not out. The only light you have is starlight and your eyes have to adjust if you are to see anything. Since I was looking for clouds, I didn't have my flashlight on as that would just make clouds harder to see. 
When I walked out and started looking for clouds, I definitely started to hear what sounded like a human stomping around in the bushes. I thought to myself, 'I hardly believe someone would be up here at 3am in the morning stomping around in the bushes' meaning it had to be an animal around the size of a human, probably a bear. Honestly, this was a pretty typical experience I've had working up here.

What the actual job is like

First a little bit about what I mean by observational astronomer. I currently work as an intern for the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (SAO) and the University of Utah. You can check out their websites here if you are curious to learn more about them.


The commuting I do is always an adventure as I literally drive up this mountain road that is right next to a cliff face, only being big enough for one vehicle for many parts (you have to use a radio to coordinate with other SAO vehicles so you don't end up stuck). As discussed above there are plenty of animals I encounter while going back and forward. I actually find it less stressful than Utah traffic though, which I think is pretty funny.

My particular job is basically the person who is physically at the actual telescope and is responsible for it's proper function throughout the night. While operating the telescopes, they take measurements of astro physical objects for Universities and professional astronomers (people who get paid to do astrophysics and publish research papers and such).

The position can get quite technical. If everything works as it is supposed to, it doesn't take too much thought (besides maybe figuring out which star is best to observe at any given time, given the time and weather conditions). However, things don't always go as they should and you have to know how to troubleshoot problems as they arise. Most nights nothing major pops up, but things do break and if you can't fix it, no else is going to (at least immediately which causes lost observing time, something which is an anathema to astronomers).

It's also very dark at night here. Using my new iPhone, I was able to get an exposure of the Milky Way.
An exposure I took. Not the best night sky picture, but for a phone this is phenomenal. The pixel 4 almost had me sold for the night photography mode it had, but the iPhone seemed all around a bit better (and about the same price). You can see the Milky Way, which is pretty rad.

I work with two different telescopes, VERITAS  and the Tillinghast 1.5m. On VERITAS I help with taking gamma ray measurements which come from a variety of things like black holes and supernova and with SII measurements, which is literally taking pictures of stars, much like they took a picture of the recent black hole (I'll have to go into it in a different post, way too much to talk about here!).

If you do want to learn more about what a typical work night is like, you can click here.

The other telescope that I help operate is the 1.5m Tillinghast using the FAST instrument, which is a spectrograph. It tells us things like how how fast a star is spinning, it's composition, whether it's in a binary, just to name a few of the things we can learn from using it.

To give you an idea of how big VERITAS is, here is a selfie of my head right next to one of telescopes.
One of the VERITAS telescopes, There being a total of four. One of the panels is about twice the size of my head, which can sort of be seen from the picture. Here is a website about what they are https://veritas.sao.arizona.edu

The hours are nuts. It's either bad weather/conditions and there isn't much to do, or it's 80+ hours a week! It is very independent work as when you are on shift to observe, if you aren't there, the observatory won't be in use.  Basically you wake up, shower, eat, drive/plan, observe, put things away for the night, drive, eat, sleep, and then do it over again. I think the closest thing it could be compared to is when you are on duty in the military. While you are the scheduled observer, you are 'on duty' and it's your responsibility to make sure things go as planned, which is only possible if you stay up all night while the observatory is in operation. I do get to drive around a government vehicle which is a nice perk though.

The hours can be the most taxing part of the job. They do try to schedule it so you aren't working non-stop, giving a week or two off after being on shift. Due to being short on observers this season though, I have done a crazy 3 week stint observing. During the winter, the nights are the longest and subsequently the hardest.

Even though the job is difficult, it's rewarding. It's why I got my degree in physics and there is absolutely no other job in the world like it. My technical skills could get me a job making more money elsewhere, but I don't think it would be nearly as fulfilling as this job can be.

Hopefully I gave you an idea of what life is like! It's an adventure everyday. It's also just an internship, so eventually I will return to normal life in a couple of months. Full-time folk here do not stay up on the mountain and have more regular lives outside of work.

If you want to know a little bit more about me and how I ended up working at an observatory you can check out this other blog I wrote


Hope you have a stellar day. Or night, if you work the night shift like me :).


  1. So fun to hear about your life up there! Way to go Dango! Thanks for sharing.

  2. Thank you for sharing! This blog really did help me with my research, I’ve been looking into some of the jobs that I’m interested in - I’m considering joining the air force, becoming an astronautical or aeronautical engineneer, or pursuing astronomy. I have some questions: what skills or courses are required in high school to follow a path towards this job? Are astronomy clubs helpful? You mentioned that an astronomer can spend weeks or more observing/working, how much time do you get to spend with family or doing hobbies? Do you work in the day and observe during the night, or do you rest during the day and work mostly during the night? Do you ever feel isolated from society/lonely (are there people in your workspace but it’s quiet, or are there just not many people in your workspace?) Are PhDs required to have a job in astrophysics?


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