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The Hubble Space Telescope offers a parallel obervation mode. Observing programmes such as CANDELS and CLASH use WFC3 and ACS in parallel fields. These are also the only instruments of which I have heard that they are being used in parallel. Here are my questions:

Is it possible to observe with more than two instruments in parallel? If so, what is the limit, and why?

Why aren't all observations done with as many instruments as possible turned on? Granted, a lot of the data would be useless / difficult to analyze (like spectra of a random patch of sky), but on the other hand it might lead to serendipitous discoveries. HST won't last forever, so why not get the most use possible out of it?

Note that this is about the science instruments - I assume the guidance sensors will be working alongside the others anyway. (Or is that wrong?)

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  • $\begingroup$ What happens if you take a faint source, with few photons, and divide that signal between two detectors? I don't know for sure, but there may also power restrictions. Running all detectors at once can require a lot of continuous power that the panels may not be able to supply. Those are just my suppositions though. Maybe someone with more specific knowledge can confirm or deny this. $\endgroup$ – zephyr Aug 18 '16 at 17:34
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    $\begingroup$ The photons are not a problem, the instruments are in different positions in the focal plane, several hundred arcseconds apart on the sky. See stsci.edu/hst/acs/documents/handbooks/cycle20/…. Could be power, could be bandwidth, could be something else entirely. $\endgroup$ – Alex Aug 18 '16 at 17:42
  • $\begingroup$ But you're not! Each instrument is looking in another direction, and each instrument sees a slightly different patch of the sky. Take a look at the link in the previous comment, and imagine the white background is lots of stars instead - each little rectangle (the detectors) covers a different star, and none overlap, so none steal photons from the other. $\endgroup$ – Alex Aug 18 '16 at 17:51
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There are two types of parallel observations: Coordinated Parallel and Pure Parallel.

Coordinated Parallel means part of the same proposal, so it has to have the same scientific justification: you have to come up with a good case for why the different observations would be useful for the same project. (This is case with CANDELS.)

Pure Parallel means something independent of the main observation, which I think is more what you're asking about. The proposal guidelines currently note that these are allowed only when the primary observation is spectroscopy (with the COS or STIS instruments).

One factor is that you need some specification for how you use a given instrument: what filter, what exposure time, what spectroscopic grating, etc. This requires that someone consider a plausible science case for what are effectively random pointings. (And you need to make sure that you're not accidentally going to try taking a long exposure of Vega, which might actually damage an instrument.)

And, yes, I gather there are data-storage and overhead limits, as well as the idea that running the data transmitters at maximum may shorten their lives. From the WFC3 Instrument Handbook (e.g., here):

The primary restriction on parallel observations, both coordinated and pure, is that they must not interfere with the primary observations: they may not cause the primary observations to be shortened; and they must not cause the stored-command capacity and data-volume limits to be exceeded.

and

In order to prolong the life of the HST transmitters, the number of parallels acquired during each proposal cycle is limited. Proposers must provide clear and strong justification in order to be granted parallel observing time.

(I think the practical answer to your "how many instruments" is two, though I haven't seen an explicit statement to that effect. This page includes specific limitations for individual instruments -- e.g., which ones can be used in Pure Parallel mode and with what other instruments.)

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