SOAR Remote Observer's Guide

Rev. Sep 15, 2020

NOTE - The Covid-19 outbreak has forced us to suspend operations, including night-time observations. No date has been yet defined for resuming science operations. However, when we do ALL OBSERVATIONS WILL BE CARRIED OUT REMOTELY OR IN AEON QUEUE MODE, until further notice. We will provide sufficient training for first-time observers to work remotely. If you have any questions, please contact your support astronomer or the Director's office.

With sufficient advance notice, it may be possible to convert scheduled nights into AEON queue nights, which could facilitate acquiring the data needed. Consult the AEON home page and listed contacts to see whether this option is appropriate.

SOAR actively encourages remote observing for any proposals requesting time with SOI, SAM, Spartan, and the Goodman Spectrograph. The requirements to qualify for remote observing are:

  1. The person who will carry out the observations has previously observed at SOAR using the instrument(s) requested in the proposal, either as on-site SOAR Visiting Astronomer, or as an experienced remote observer.
  2. Our review of the proposal does not reveal any special technical requirements which would make it preferable to have an observer on-site.

You should have an efficient and reliable remote observing set-up (see recommendations below). IMPORTANT! All remote observers, like on-site observers, must follow the NOIRLab Cybersecurity and Acceptable Use Policy. (For typical remote observers, compliance with the policy just involves basic common sense, like not posting passwords in public locations.)

How is remote observing done at SOAR?
Remote observing is done by connecting via VNC to various computers at SOAR/CTIO and opening a remote display of the desktop on which the instrument GUI is running, and another remote display with the desktop of the computer on which you run IRAF.  SOAR has a video conference system (Polycom) both at the telescope and at its La Serena headquarters, so this is the preferred method to communicate with the Telescope Operator and your support scientist during your observing run. Alternatively, you can Skype-in.

Requirements for Remote Observing with SOAR:
1) You need a fast internet connection, and at least two monitors (preferably large enough to support HD resolution). This means that you will probably use your desktop, or your laptop connected to an additional monitor. The two monitor requirement is needed because you will be displaying two desktops (see example image below): one showing the instrument Graphical User Interface (GUI), which allows you to control your data acquisition, and another one, most likely on a different computer, in which you will be running an IRAF session to do your basic image display and quality control. This requirement means that attempting to do remote observing with nothing but your laptop (or a single monitor computer) is strongly discouraged since it will impact negatively your observing efficiency by requiring multiple switching from one VNC session to the other.

Goodman Spectrograph GUI desktop
Goodman Spectrograph IRAF desktop

2) A Cisco VPN client or alternative.

Recent Cisco VPN clients can be found on the CTIO website at:  However, this page may not open in either Safari or Firefox if you are using Mac OS. An alternative to retrieve the necessary binary file for an OSX platform is performing the following from the command line:
>login: anonymous
>password: <your-email-address>
>cd pub/software/VPN_CLIENTS
>get <my-necessary-VPN_CLIENT>

You can also find the Cisco Anyconnect Secure VPN client, both Linux and Mac OSX, at the Cisco download webpages. The appropriate setup and connection parameters will be provided by your Support Scientist.

Alternatively, if you are a Linux user (Ubuntu, Debian, Fedora), you can install the Cisco VPN plugin for the Network Manager  using this link.  Mac users can use the Cisco-compatible VPN client that comes by default with Mac OSX. If using either the Cisco-plugin in Linux, or the one on MacOSX, you can connect using the SOAR generic VPN. Again, contact your Support Scientist for details on the connection parameters.

Finally, for Windows 7 64 bit and Windows 10 64 bit users, we recommend the VPN client from ShrewSoft. This client allows for configuration of the group parameters, which is required to connect to the SOAR PVN. Details on how to configure the ShrewSoft VPN client can be found at this link.

3) A VNC viewer.  For GNU/Linux and Mac OSX machines we suggest the Real VNC Viewer client. We have tested RealVNC to work fine with Ubuntu 16, 18, and 20, and the latest macOS, Catalina 10.15.6. For Windows machines, we suggest either the Real VNC Viewer client or the Ultra VNC Viewer client.  We also know that Vinagre and vncviewer on GNU/Linux work fine. Contact a support astronomer for details.

4) Some kind of audio/video conferencing software or Skype. The Polycom is the preferred method of communication. Polycom has a conferencing client app (RealPresence mobile for Android and iOS) that should work on phones and tablets. However, if you cannot or prefer not to use the Polycom app, you can use Skype. SOAR has a dedicated Skype account in the Console Room (soar_pachon).  Skype can be downloaded at:  We have found that XMeeting works on Mac OSX; Ekiga works on GNU/Linux platforms; NetMeeting may work on Windows platforms. You must, at a minimum, have a working audio set-up in order to communicate effectively with the telescope operator. Note - for groups of remote observers at separate locations, the SOAR operators can set up a multi-user videoconference using BlueJeans. Contact a support astronomer or the operator beforehand so that you can test the connections.

After all of the necessary software is downloaded, please contact your Scientific Staff support so that VPN and VNC passwords can be sent to you via FAX or communicated verbally (e.g., via telephone or Skype). We will not send passwords over email.

Before your Remote Observing Run

  1. Please plan ahead and contact your Scientific Support Staff a least 4 weeks before your scheduled remote observing.  This allows us time to test the VPN, VNC, and VoIP connections, and also to discuss with you your particular instrumentation needs, or whether your program plan has special requirements that need to be taken into account. Please remember, any failure of the VPN/VNC clients or lost connectivity to SOAR during an observing night should be treated the same as a systems failure or weather problem.  SOAR does not provide queue or service observing.
i) If your time was allocated through NOIRLab or the Chilean TAC, your contacts are the following:
  • Goodman: Sean Points, Regis Cartier or Alfredo Zenteno
  • SOI: Sean Points
  • SAM: Andrei Tokovinin or Cesar Briceño
  • SPARTAN: Jay Elias
ii) If your time was allocated through the Brazilian TAC, then your Support Scientist for any of the SOAR instruments is Tina Armond (

iii) If you are observing through time allocated to the University of Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) or to Michigan State University (MSU), the person in charge of SOAR at your department will provide you with the appropriate support.

  1. Submit your Instrument Setup Form at least 2 weeks before your observing run.
  2. Depending on the instrument and type of observations you will also need to submit special, critical information well in advance:
    1. If you will be observing with SAM you need to submit your target list at least 2 weeks before your scheduled observations, so that we can submit to the US Laser Clearing House the request for authorized time windows in which each object can be observed with the SOAR Laser Guided Adaptive Optics System
    2. If you will be observing with the Goodman Multi-Slit Object (MOS) mode, you need to submit your mask configurations with at least 1 month ahead of your scheduled observations

During your observing run
On your first day, make sure to contact your Support Scientist and the Telescope Operator early on, so you can arrange with them the appropriate time to start your afternoon calibrations, and whether you need twilight observations.
Afternoon calibrations usually start at 4pm.  In special cases, e.g. if very long calibrations are required, an earlier start may be arranged, but this requires special arrangements. Ask your Support Scientist.

Remember to fill in your End-of-Night report before going to bed. This is very important, not only because it allows us to keep statistics on telescope use, downtime due to weather or technical issues, but mostly because only if we receive an early report on a technical problem, can we act promptly the next day to try and fix it and have you or the next observer ready for the next science night. Please note that you need to connect through the VPN in order to access the Night Reports.

After your Observing Run.
Please fill in the End-of-Run report which can be found on our web site, at this link.  The End-of-Run form is our way to know your assessment of the entire observing run experience, so it is very important you submit it. Feel free to add any comments you think appropriate. Also, please note you will need to connect through the VPN in order to access the End-of-Run Reports.

If you need to contact us by phone, click here to see the telephone numbers for key SOAR/CTIO staff