These days with high speed internet, observational astronomy can be done from remote locations. Still I believe from time to time an experimenter might travel to work on-site for particularly challenging or unusual/non-standard observations, where working closely with the instrument support team is necessary.

When astronomers travel to the Atacama Large Millimeter Array or ALMA:

  1. Where do they live?
  2. Where do they work during observing sessions?

Representative photos would be greatly appreciated!

I'm guessing it looks a little different than this:

The WSRT telescope RT5 equipped with the APERTIF prototype - cropped

Source: Cropped from Apertif - the focal-plane array system for the WSRT

Figure 2. The WSRT telescope RT5 equipped with the APERTIF prototype. Shown in the inserts is the Vivaldi array in the lab (top right) and in the focal plane of the telescope (bottom right).

  • $\begingroup$ I've talked with some astronomers who worked on-site there. I think that if they're there for a long stay, they live in a nearby town. If they have to stay on-site, I think that they camp. I could be totally wrong though. $\endgroup$
    – Phiteros
    Commented Apr 27, 2019 at 7:18
  • $\begingroup$ @Phiteros then my next question will be in Outdoors SE about low-pressure and low-oxygen campfire cooking recipes! But I'll hold off on that until this one gets answered. ;-) $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Commented Apr 27, 2019 at 7:30
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @uhoh do these questions signify that you'll be visiting a high altitude observatory in the near future? $\endgroup$
    – Ingolifs
    Commented Apr 27, 2019 at 13:01
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    $\begingroup$ Well, from my experience, even if you were on-site, you wouldn't actually be able to do anything. To schedule an observation, you submit a document which details what coordinates you wish to observe in which bands at which times. It gets put into a queue which is automatically generated based on when your sources are in the sky, and what other observations are requested. Then the telescope carries out the observations under the guidance of an operator. The operator's job is mostly to make sure nothing goes wrong and to log what the weather is, so that you know what data might be bad. $\endgroup$
    – Phiteros
    Commented Apr 28, 2019 at 5:33
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    $\begingroup$ And after the observations, you wouldn't even be able to use your data because it would still need to be run through the correlator (in the case of an interferometer). When I had a project which involved using the VLBA, our data was available a few weeks after the observations were completed. The hard drives had to be shipped to Socorro to be run through the correlator, then our data was uploaded to the server. $\endgroup$
    – Phiteros
    Commented Apr 28, 2019 at 5:35

1 Answer 1


No one travels to ALMA to observe; the observations are all carried out by staff working at the Operations Support Facility. (This is at an altitude of 2900 meters; the actual telescopes are 28 km away at the Array Operations Site, which is at an altitude of 5000 meters and is not permanently staffed.) Any "unusual/non-standard observations" would have to be specified in advance and encoded into the Scheduling Blocks (prepared files specifying the observations you want).


I believe the staff at the Operations Support Facility stays in the Residencia. (More pictures here and here; pictures of the OSF, including the telescope control room, can be found here.)

(I wonder if some future movie will film scenes there, as the James Bond movie Quantum of Solace did at the Paranal Observatory's Residencia in 2008...)

Visitors (who cannot stay overnight) are permitted on Saturdays and Sundays, though you have reserve your visit in advance.

  • $\begingroup$ Thank you for your clear and well-sourced answer! Your "...and here" link says "ALMA ATACAMA HOTEL RESIDENCE FOR SCIENTISTS ...providing 120 accommodation rooms for astronomers and staff from 20 countries..." Maybe it's poor wording, but is it certain that those scientists and astronomers are never observers? $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Commented Apr 27, 2019 at 23:43
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    $\begingroup$ I think phiteros has already explained things very well in their comments. In the case of proposing to observe with the Very Large Telescope (ESO's flagship optical telescope, also in Chile), there is a place in the form where you can specify whether you requires service observations or "visitor mode" (i.e., you will travel to the telescope for the observations). As far as I can tell, there's no such provision in ALMA proposals. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 28, 2019 at 10:17
  • $\begingroup$ okay then, thank you again. $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Commented Apr 28, 2019 at 10:20

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