A Career in the Paranal Science Operations department

The Paranal Observatory is a unique place to work at, as it combines the most cutting-edge technology in ground-based astronomy with one of the most exotic landscapes on Earth. Located in one of the driest places on this planet, and with an award-winning residence that served as backdrop for a James Bond movie, Paranal hosts the Very Large Telescope (VLT), the survey telescopes VST and VISTA, as well as the NGTS. The operations at Paranal are fully embedded into an end-to-end data flow at ESO - the foremost intergovernmental astronomy organisation in Europe and the world’s most productive astronomical observatory.

As Paranal astronomers, we take pride from the fact that the science we support addresses some of the most fundamental questions of humanity: What is the origin of the Universe? How did the Earth form? Are we alone in the Universe? This does not only attract a huge number of observing proposals each semester, but also the interest and fascination of the general public.

At Paranal, we have no less than 16 instruments. Recent arrivals to our suite of instruments include the high-contrast imager SPHERE and the 1 arcmin field of view Integral Field Spectrograph MUSE. At the moment, major new systems enter operations, including the Adaptive Optics Facility (AOF) equipped with 4 laser guide stars, the VLTI 2nd generation instruments GRAVITY, which will look in unprecedented detail to the Galactic Centre, and MATISSE, a mid-infrared spectro-interferometer, as well as the planet hunter ESPRESSO and the VISTA instrument 4MOST.

Finally, construction of ESO’s 39-m Extremely Large Telescope (ELT) is currently underway on Cerro Armazones, vis-à-vis Cerro Paranal. The ELT's first light is currently foreseen for 2024. The ELT operation will be fully integrated into Paranal Observatory, which is a long-term motivation for many of our staff.

Career developments at and beyond Paranal

Working as Paranal Operations Staff Astronomer offers you a variety of career possibilities. Many current staff have been at Paranal for 5 years or more (the fraction of staff with indefinite contracts is about 50% at present), and over the years have endorsed growing responsibilities as outlined below. The continual arrival of new systems regularly provides new challenges.

Other colleagues come to Paranal with the motivation to gain expertise during a limited time of 3 to 6 years, and use the experience gathered on Paranal as an 'asset' for their career. We expressly welcome such motivation, which strengthens the exchange with the astronomical community. Staff that have most recently left us are now faculty professor at Caltech, faculty professor at a Chilean university, part of the observatory management for the TMT, and at ESO Garching. You can see a more detailed list on the Alumni page.

Your job as an astronomer on Paranal

As an astronomer on Paranal, we typically spend up to 80 nights per year (as Fellow) or 105 nights per year (as staff astronomer) on the mountain. This is scheduled in shifts of typical length of 8 to 10 nights. Some flexibility exists regarding shift length and dates depending on personal constraints. 

Initial Training

As a new astronomer on Paranal, you will typically start with two daytime training shifts, where you will be introduced to the general aspects of our operations and start to support core duties in the day. This includes ensuring the correct calibration of the data, the preparation of the instruments for the night, and the follow-up of problems with the engineers in charge.

This initial daytime training is followed by two shifts of nighttime training where you will learn more about instrument operations, prioritisation of observations in service mode, quality control, problem reporting, and interfacing with our colleagues at Paranal and at the Garching headquarters. Day- and nighttime training can also be interleaved.

After those four initial training shifts, you are generally ready for unsupervised core operations as night- and day-astronomer.

Working schedule

During normal operations, nighttime astronomers start work in the afternoon and finish at around 2-3 am. Nighttime operations are then concluded by the telescope operators who drive the instruments alone. One of the astronomers works from sunset to sunrise, taking the function of Nighttime Shift Coordinator. This function is rotated among the nighttime astronomers. As a new astronomer, you can be assigned this important role as of your second year of duty, once you have accumulated enough operational experience. 

When you are scheduled as daytime astronomer or daytime shift coordinator, the working schedule is from about 08:30 until sunset.

When you are scheduled outside of core operations (for example as instrument scientist) your daily work schedule is flexible depending on the operational boundary conditions.

Developing your expertise and profile inside Paranal Science Operations

As an astronomer at Paranal, you are encouraged to continuously expand your expertise. Our experience has shown that the most successful staff members are those that achieve the best synergy between their functional work and scientific investigations. The simplest example is that your scientific work is based on the data of the instrument you support on Paranal. To help you in this, we take into account as much as possible your scientific preference when assigning you to a telescope. Furthermore, there are always opportunities for you to get engaged in or propose projects that improve operational efficiencies.

After about 2-3 years of experience you will be ready to serve as daytime shift coordinator, an important task where you coordinate the efforts of Science Operations and our counterparts in the Engineering department in real-time. This will allow you to gain a broad and deep insight into the global functioning of Paranal. 

Beyond the day-to-day operations, you will have the opportunity to endorse additional responsibilities within the department as your experience grows:

  • Become Instrument Scientist (or Instrument Fellow) of one of our instruments, coordinating the ESO-wide instrument operations team:
    • For new instruments, you will be in charge of making them ready for regular operations, with a strong participation during the commissioning phase;
    • For instruments in operations, you will be in charge of optimising their performance.
  • Coordinate one of the telescope operation teams.
  • Coordinate the department-wide Training and Procedure activities 
  • Become System Scientist for one of the four areas – Operations, Instruments, VLTI, and Adaptive Optics – in which case you will form part of the Science Operations project review team and the observatory wide System Engineering group.

Supporting your science activities

We are encouraged and expected to be active astronomical researchers. Office times in Vitacura are reserved for personal research. 

At ESO Vitacura we provide a vivid scientific environment: we have regular seminars from visiting astronomers, a studentship and visitor program, financial support for science trips, and several international workshops per year hosted at the ESO or ALMA Chile premises. ESO also maintains close ties with other observatories and universities throughout Chile. Please visit the web page of ESO Chile's Office for Science for more information.

Note that we do not have privileged access to telescope time, but most astronomers develop collaborations and broaden their observational skills as a result of their functional assignments, resulting in good proposal success rates.