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Scheduling the Hubble Space Telescope

Scheduling the Hubble Space Telescope

Imagine using a telescope that is orbiting around the earth. How does one keep it pointed and steady without the earth for support? What happens if it points towards the moon or the sun? Who worries about these things and makes sure the telescope doesn't get damaged? One of the people is the Program Coordinator (PC). The following notes were written by Mike Asbury who was PC for the observations of NGC 4650A.

Under normal circumstances, when an astronomer wants to use the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) to observe an object in the sky, he/she submits a proposal specifying what he/she would like to observe and why HST is needed for such an observation. This is submitted when the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) issues a ``Call for Proposals''. The astronomer is in "competition" with other astronomers for time on the telescope. Thus, it is important for the astronomer to stress the need for HST as opposed to ground-based observations.

Once the proposal is submitted to STScI, a panel of scientists review the proposal to see if it truly warrants HST time and is technically feasible. If the proposal is accepted, the astronomer is notified and assigned two contact personnel at STScI. They are assigned a ``Program Coordinator'' and a ``Contact Scientist''. The Program Coordinator (PC) is the person responsible for the overall scheduling of the observations. The Contact Scientist (CS) is responsible for the scientific aspects of the observation.

After the astronomer is notified that his or her proposal has been accepted, the astronomer must submit a more concise version of the proposal, giving exact observing strategies. They do this through software that is provided to them from STScI. Once received by the PC, the proposal is processed to see when the observations can be performed. Many aspects can affect when an observation is performed. For instance, the astronomer might want to observe the object at only certain times of the year. Another aspect that affects scheduling is the fact that the object cannot be too close to the Sun or Moon, because those objects are so bright that they may damage the instruments on the telescope. Yet another aspect that affects scheduling is acquiring ``guide stars''. These are stars that HST ``lock'' onto to avoid drifting when observing a target. If the target is in an area of the sky where there are few stars or an overabundance of stars, then acquiring guide stars may be a problem.

After all the scheduling issues are worked out, the CS does a review of the proposal to make sure all the scientific aspects of the observations will be achieved without harming the telescope. Once this is done, as it gets closer to the time that the observations are to be performed, the observations are put on a ``flight calendar''. This is a week long calendar filled with observations. Flight calendars are built three weeks in advance. After an observation is put on a flight calendar, there is nothing left for the PC, CS or astronomer to do other than sit back and wait for the data.

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