Wednesday, October 24, 2012

What is an Observing Proposal?

Have you ever wondered what astronomers have to do to get to go on observing runs to telescopes? You might think that there are a lot of telescopes and thus astronomers can go observing whenever they want to or you might think that they observe every night. Actually, time on telescopes is in very high demand and astronomers have to compete with each other for every night of telescope time they get. In order to enter this process, astronomers must write a document called an observing proposal. This is the typical process for almost all telescopes, including big and small facilities, facilities run by a single University, those run by groups of Universities, and national facilities. Space-based telescopes (like Hubble!) also follow this procedure.

Image of Kitt Peak National Observatory, managed by NOAO. Image credit: Michael L. Weasner
In order to apply for telescope time, the first step is to come up with a good idea. Astronomers often have multiple projects going on at once and we are always thinking of new ideas and questions and ways to improve upon what we know. Once we have an idea we have to decide what telescope (and instrument) would be the most suited to accomplishing the science goals we have in mind. The instrument needed can often be more important than the telescope itself. Is the goal imaging or spectroscopy? Is there a particular wavelength range or filter needed? Do we need to target a single object or small patch of sky or are we surveying a large area? All of these factors go into selecting the best telescope-instrument pair. This selection can also depend on the University or country that the astronomer is at. Different Universities have access to different Observatories depending on funding, instrument development, and various other partnerships. There are also various facilities run on a national level -- for example NOAO in the US or ESO in Europe.

The next step is the bulk of the work: writing the actual proposal. A typical observing proposal has several components. The main one is called the Scientific Justification -- basically, describe why the science project you want to do is interesting. This is the place where an astronomer has to really sell their idea and convince others that answering this particular question is very important and must be done. Often, those reviewing proposals do not work in the particular specialty of the proposer so a good proposal is one that can be understood by any astronomer, not just experts on that particular topic. We must also clearly lay out the strategy of the science project here: how will the observations that we are proposing for answer this important question? What kind of data will be taken and how will this data be used to solve the problem presented? Often astronomers are limited to only a couple of pages of text so it can take a lot of work to say everything you want to say succinctly.

Another typical component of an observing proposal is a technical section. This is where an astronomer must go into detail about the instrument and telescope they are proposing to use and say why this particular combination is well suited. They must clearly demonstrate how much data they need and how much time this will take overall. Since observing time is a precious commodity, any time request must be clearly justified - if you say you will need two nights to accomplish your goals then you must show that two nights are really needed and one night would not be enough. Often, this portion is reviewed by people who are experts with the given instrument and who understand how well the instrument will perform.

It is important that a proposal be very well written! In fact, the ability to write well is a very important job skill for astronomers in general. An astronomer must be clear and concise in their proposal. If there is confusion about the goals or how they are going to address a particular problem, this could negatively impact the proposal's chance of success. It is also very useful to include informative graphics that illustrate the science goals and method presented. As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words, and a clear well-thought out figure can really strengthen a proposal. Finally, this might seem obvious but it is very important that all of the rules be followed! A proposal cannot be longer than the given limit and cannot be written in too small of a font or with tiny margins. This might seem picky, but when a person has to review a lot of proposals they all need to be easy to read. At last, the proposal is complete and can be submitted (and must be on time!). At this stage, the astronomer can sit back, relax, and start thinking about their next big idea.

But the process has only just started on the receiving end. Most observing proposals are then evaluated by a committee of peers (other astronomers, either from the specific institute that runs that particular telescope, or selected from all over). Every proposal is read by the entire committee and the committee gets together to discuss each one over the course of a few days. It's not always easy to pick out the best proposals to award time to. Often there are more excellent proposals than there are nights to be awarded. Intense discussions about the merits of each proposal results in a ranked list and time is given to those proposals at the very top. Every one that does not get their proposal accepted must try again next time.

This may sound like a lot of work, and it is, but whenever a proposal is accepted and we get the opportunity to observe and collect new data, it is all worth it. It is a great feeling to know that your peers have found your ideas worthy of supporting! This is a process that we go through once or twice a year for each telescope we would like to collect data with. One of the major observing seasons of the year just finished this past September. Luckily there is a little bit of a break before the next major deadline in February (for HST). This break is needed so that we can work on analyzing all of the data from the previous year!


  1. To me as a non-astronomer who writes about astronomy all the time in my job, this is a very informative article. One thing I'm curious about: Why isn't there simply a waiting list as opposed to being flat-out denied and having to try in another round? If a proposal is deemed interesting, why does the author have to reapply instead of just waiting their turn?

  2. Thanks Daniel! A waiting list is an interesting idea. This probably isn't used simply because the field is quickly changing. A proposal might be ranked highly one time but the next time around there may be other more exciting projects to consider. Plus, the original proposer might think of ways to improve upon their initial idea. It does help to keep things moving forward.