Telescope operators are the engineers responsible for the maintenance and daily operations of the physical and electronic equipment that make up the telescope and other viewing apparatuses of an observatory. They make sure that the telescope is aligned with the proper coordinates and viewing the right part of the sky. Most telescopes, and most telescope operators, work at night. Solar telescopes and their operators work when the sun’s up.
A telescope operator’s responsibilities may include:
- using massive glass reflectors that take a long time to get acclimated to the difference in temperature between the warm observatory and the cold air outside
- developing an indepth knowledge of the complex machinery that makes the modern observatory work, such as powerful gears, reflective plates and magnifying lenses
- maintaining and aligning the telescope
- acquiring a strong understanding of coordinate systems and the nomenclature that Astronomers use to label and describe parts of the sky.
Why did you choose this profession? I was introduced to astronomy during the second year of my bachelor’s degree. One night, in the Physics Department of the University of the Western Cape, I looked through a telescope for the first time in my life. When I focused on the moon I saw with astonishment how big it was; its craters were striking. I was fascinated by how much was known about objects that were so far from Earth, so I enrolled for an honours degree in astrophysics at the University of Cape Town (UCT). After completing my master’s, an opportunity arose to join the SKA team as a telescope operator. This was a wonderful opportunity not to be missed – to learn how radio telescopes work and how the data is collected before being analysed by astrophysicists.
What training did you undergo? To be a telescope operator, one needs a bachelor’s degree in science – majoring in physics, mathematics, computer science or statistics – or engineering, and two years’ experience in a research or technical environment.
Is there a type of personality best suited to this work? Yes, someone who can identify and solve problems, who is proactive and works well under pressure. Analytical ability is paramount.
What does a typical day entail? The SKA Telescope Operations section is a 24-hour facility. The first thing I do is to find out the status of operations – in other words, what is currently being observed, are the telescopes in working condition, and what problems should I be aware of. I then look at the schedule to find out what scientific observations I should run. While the system is running, I monitor the observations and troubleshoot any problems encountered.
Your career highlights so far? Highlights of my career include making a presentation to Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa and the Minister of Science and Technology, Naledi Pandor. I enjoy talking about astronomy and the SKA to high school learners. I attended Scifest Africa 2015 in Grahamstown and the career talks presented by the Sindisa Dunga Foundation earlier this year.
What do you enjoy most about your job? I learn more about the telescope’s potential every day. I have realised how many different types of science are involved in analysing the data collected. There have been fascinating insights into studies about the properties and dynamics of galaxies, as well as some strange celestial denizens such as rapidly rotating neutron stars, called pulsars. A major benefit of my work is interacting with top scientists, engineers and technicians, who are all working towards making the SKA Project a success.
What are your goals for the future? To become one of the lead scientists conducting research with the SKA radio telescope and to assist in the development of future astronomers in SA.
Advice for those just starting out? The position of Telescope Operator is multidisciplinary in nature. You interact with scientists, engineers, technicians and – sometimes – the media and the public. It is important to be curious, willing to learn, to persevere and, most importantly, love the job and have fun.
Some telescope operators have no higher education and get on-the-job training. However, it is advantageous to increase your competitiveness in the field by studying a degree in relevant subjects, such as astronomy, computers, engineering or information technology.
Bachelor of Science: Astronomy; National Diploma and Degree: Engineering
University of Cape Town
Courses in Astronomy; Bachelor of Science: Engineering
University of the Witwatersrand
Bachelor of Science: Engineering
Cape Peninsula University of Technology
National Diploma: Engineering
Tshwane University of Technology
National Diploma: Engineering
Contact each institution for their specific requirements, but these subjects are recommended:
- Physical Sciences
- Information Technology