Service Mode Rules and Recommendations for Observation Blocks

Preparing Observation Blocks

Observations at all ESO telescopes are carried out by executing Observation Blocks (OBs) provided by the users. OBs for Service Mode runs with Paranal Instruments must be made with p2. For (designated) Visitor Mode observation preparation, please follow dedicated Visitor Mode Guidelines.

Please refer to the Phase 2 step-by-step preparation with p2 page and to the User Manuals of the different instruments for more specific information on the structure and content of OBs, and how to build OBs for different instruments. A number of tutorials describing step-by-step the construction of OBs for different instruments is available.

Service Mode OBs: rules and advices

It is important to keep in mind the Service Mode policies and the following rules and guidelines when designing a Service Mode programme or when preparing a Phase 2 package:

  • Some observing strategies cannot be supported in Service Mode; in particular, real-time decisions about the sequencing of OBs, complex OB sequencing, or decisions based on the outcome of previously executed OBs (like adjustment of integration times or execution of some OBs instead of others).
  • OBs are only executed once. If you want to repeat an identical observation multiple times, you must submit multiple OBs. This requirement applies to standard stars as well.
  • OBs are normally executed non-contiguously. Since efficient Service Mode operations require continuous flexibility to best match the OB constraints with actual observing conditions, OBs for a given programme may be scheduled non-contiguously. Therefore, users should not expect their OBs to be executed in a specific sequence or in a linked way. Usuers who do require contigous observations might use concatenation scheduling container (see definition below) by follwing the rules applied to this case.
  • Multi-mode, multi-configuration OBs are normally not permitted in Service Mode. Although multiple configurations (e.g. combining imaging and spectroscopy) within one OB may sometimes reduce overheads, scheduling and calibrating such OBs is inefficient and can increase the calibration load to an unsustainable level. Multi-configuration OBs are accepted only if duly justified and authorized by means of a Phase 2 Waiver Request.
  • OB execution times must be below 1 hour. Long OBs are more difficult to schedule and execute within the specified constraints because of the unpredictable evolution of the observing conditions. For this reason, OBs taking more than one hour to execute are accepted by ESO only in exceptional cases and provided that a Phase 2 Waiver Request is submitted and approved. In such cases, ESO will consider the OB successfully executed if the constraints were fulfilled during the first hour of execution, even if conditions degrade after that time.
  • Concatenation scheduling container execution time must be below 1 hour. Only in exceptional cases, and provided that a Phase 2 Waiver Request is submitted and approved, longer concatenations may be submitted. In such cases, ESO will consider the concatenated OBs successfully executed if the constraints were fulfilled during the first hour of execution, even if conditions degrade after that time.
  • User-provided calibration OBs that need to be executed contiguously with science OBs need to be specified via concatenation scheduling containers.
  • Time constraints must be indicated in the OBs. If a user intends to observe time-critical events or monitor a target at specific time windows, this must be indicated under the Time Intervals tab of the OBs. Please note that absolute (UT) time constraints refer to the interval in which the OB can be started, whereas for Local Sidereal Time (LST) time intervals, the time interval refers to the entire duration of the OB. For monitoring observations it is often more appropriate to put OBs in a time-link container. Specifying time windows as broad as possible will reduce the possibilities that your OBs are not executed because of higher priority programmes or because the observing conditions did not allow the observations during the interval that you specified.  Usage of absolute time intervals must be scientifically justified in the README file. Please read carefully the time-critial OB execution policy.
  • Specify the weakest (most relaxed) possible Constraint Set values. OBs that can be executed under a broad range of conditions are easier to schedule. In particular, for photometric calibration it is normally sufficient to obtain a short integration under photometric conditions (transparency = PHO) and carry out the rest of the integration with OBs having a transparency = CLR constraint.
  • Nested scheduling containers (see definition below) should be used only if strictly necessary as they increase complexity for observations and scheduling.

Time-linking of OBs

Some OBs must be executed within precise time windows for scientific reasons, rather than any time when the external conditions (moon, seeing, transparency...) would allow the execution. The following types of time-dependencies can be recognized:

  • Absolute time constraints, meaning that an OB must be executed at specific dates that can be predetermined. An example is the observation of a binary star at a precise phase of its period or a planetary transit observation.
  • Relative time links, implying that an OB must be executed within a time interval after the execution of a previous OB, but not necessarily at a fixed date. Examples of this are monitoring observations of a variable source at some pre-defined intervals.

Both types of time-dependency are implemented within p2. Whereas absolute time constraints are available at the level of single OBs, the relative time links are implemented within the new "Time Link" container.

Within a Time Link container, the user can define a series of OBs, having the earliest and latest time when a given OB in the series must be executed with respect to the preceding OB. The time-related information is stored in a database, from where it is retrieved by scheduling tools available to the operator on the mountain in order to build up a short-term schedule that properly takes these constraints into account.

If an OB with absolute time constraint or time-linked OB that acquired an absolute time constraint following execution of a previous OB in sequence (i.e. OB to be observed after earliest from and before latest from time of the previous OB in the sequence) is not successfully completed within the specified time interval, it will expire and get status F(ailed). Such an OB is not observable any more and policy for time-critical OB execution applies.

If the time-linked OB expired in the middle of a time-link sequence, the sequence execution continues as follows:

  • If the failed OB is not the very first OB of the time link, it had the absolute time window corresponding to delay from the previously executed OB. After it expired the next OB acquires an absolute time window by adding the relative minimum and maximum time delays to an assumed hypothetical execution for the failed OB in the middle of its constraint window. 
  • If the failed OB is the very first OB of the time link, the failure can only occur if this OB has one or more absolute time constraints defined and all of them have expired. In this case the next OB acquires an absolute time window by adding its relative minimum and maximum time delays to an assumed hypothetical execution of the failed OB at the end of its last absolute time interval. 

It should be noticed that, depending on the length of the relative time intervals, and the delays between them, a failure of an OB in a sequence may result in a cascade of failing OBs.

Concatenation of OBs

In some cases it may be desired to execute the OBs consecutively, with no other observations in between. This has been implemented in p2 within the "Concatenation" container. The Concatenation container consists of two or more OBs that must be executed "back-to-back" without breaks. The sequence of the execution of OBs in a Concatenation typically follows the sequence as they are listed in the p2 window. 

Definition of groups of OBs

Groups of OBs are used to express the preference to complete observations of a given group of OBs before continuing with other OBs (or groups of OBs) within the same observing run. This is the most loose scheduling container concept, and the priority for execution of the group with respect to other groups within the same run is defined though group priority that has values 1-10 (1 top, 10 lowest priority) as for the user priority for loose OBs. The priority for execution of OBs within the given group is regulated through the OB group contribution. 

If OBs within the group, whose observation started, are not observable (constraints are not fulfilled), it is possible to start observations of another group. After that group score defines which groupo will be given priority in case both groups of OBs are observable again. 

Definition of Nested Containers

For Service Mode observations that use VLT or VLTI instruments on Paranal it is now possible to design more complex observing strategies in the p2 tool with nested scheduling containers. For example a science case that requires time-monitoring of a set of concatenations of science+telluric OBs can be expressed as time-links of concatenations. For the VLTI imaging observations use of groups of pairs of science+calibrator is mandatory, such that the group defines the set of concatenations that contribute to the same image or uv plane. 

Additional Service Mode Requirements for HAWK-I

(Note: the same rules apply to non-AO and AO observations)

Saturation limits and persistence

Like many other infrared detectors the HAWK-I detectors show a persistence effect if the observed sources are too bright. In Service Mode, this problem would seriously compromise subsequent observations of other programmes, therefore the following rules apply:

  • When using DITs smaller than 30 secs, persistence effects can be neglected.
  • When using larger DITs > 30s the maximum accepted saturation is 7 times the saturation level.

Because the saturation level on a given object also depends on the sky conditions, users are recommended to check carefully their fields against saturation using the HAWKI Exposure Time Calculator during Phase 2.

Requests for imaging observations not compliant with these limits must be submitted as a Phase 2 Waiver Request, which will be evaluated on individual case basis. If judged acceptable, ESO will try to devise operational strategies (e.g. observations at the end of the night, scheduling other BB imaging OBs after the observations in question).

The magnitude of the brightest object in the field, including standard stars, must be indicated in the "Instrument comments" field in each OB.

Minimum Time between offsets

Rapid offsets of the telescope lead to a degradation of image quality and to excessive overheads (>> 100%). Therefore, the minimum time allowed between telescope offsets is one (1) minute. The integration time parameters (DIT, NDIT, NEXP) should be defined so as to ensure that this rule is strictly followed. Please consider that with large sky offsets and DIT * NDIT * NEXP = 60s, the overheads are already on the order of 100%.

Recommended DITs

In order to prevent daytime calibrations to run over an unreasonable execution time, the DIT values for long exposure times are restricted. In Service Mode it is therefore mandatory to select one of the following DIT values in case the DIT exceeds 120 seconds: 150, 180, 240, 300, 600, 900 seconds. For observations with broad-band filters please remember to define short DIT values,i.e. lower than 15 seconds, in order to avoid saturation on the sky background.

Offset conventions

HAWK-I follows the standard astronomical offset conventions and definitions: North is up and East to the left.

All offsets are given as telescope offsets in arcseconds: if the telescope moves towards N-E the target moves in the opposite direction on the detector FOV, i.e. towards S-W.

Detector gaps and target acquisition

Mind the gaps! The HAWK-I field consists of 4 detectors with gaps of 15" in between them. If you don't want your target to fall onto the center of the gaps, you should define an offset in the acquisition template. This is done by using the following two entries in the HAWKI_img_acq_Preset template (or the HAWKI_img_acq_LGS_Preset template):

  •  TEL.TARG.OFFSETALPHA  "Alpha offset for the target (arcsec)"
  •  TEL.TARG.OFFSETDELTA "Delta offset for the target (arcsec)"

The figure below shows the offset conventions (TEL.TARG.OFFSETALPHA, TEL.TARG.OFFSETDELTA)  to place the target in the center of one of the four quadrants, assuming that your target coordinates match the OB coordinates (i.e. at the beginning of the acquisition your target is in the middle of the gap).

For instance, to place the target in the center of Q1, which is the lower left quadrant (S-E), the telescope must move towards N-W, hence you must use the following offsets in the P2PP:

  •  TEL.TARG.OFFSETALPHA  "Alpha offset for the target (arcsec)" :  -115"
  •  TEL.TARG.OFFSETDELTA "Delta offset for the target (arcsec)"   : +115"


The positive position angle is defined from North to East. As shown in the figures below, if for PA=0 your target falls in the center of Q1 and you want to move it in Q4 you can either change the parameters TEL.TARG.OFFSETALPHA, TEL.TARG.OFFSETDELTA (see previous section) or just rotate the PA by +90 degrees.


FastPhot mode observations

FastPhot mode (FastJitter observations) is offered both in VM and in SM. However, in the case of lunar occultations, only disappearances are offered in SM. VM must be requested in the case of appearances.

The following constraints on the detector window parameters are imposed:

  • Only contiguous windows that span entirely the width of the detectors are offered. This implies that "Number of columns for each window stripe"=128 and "First column of window within a stripe"=1. Therefore, the total size of the output file along the X axis is always 128 x 32 = 4096 pixels.
  • Only 3 values for the window height are allowed, hence "Number of rows for each window stripe" can be set to 32, 64 or 128 pixels. There are no restrictions on where the windows are located along the Y axis, the users are free to select any possible value, from 1 to 2047, as the "First row of window within a stripe".

Combination of no-AO and AO Observations

In case of OB concatenation between no-AO and AO OBs, the AO OB must be the first one.

Instrument selector

On this page: