As an amateur astronomer, staring up into the infinite star studded blackness of a clear night, it can be confusing to work out where to start with observations. Stellarium may give you the positions of the planets and fixed things like double stars, clusters, nebulae and galaxies, Heavens Above might provide satellites and comets and the like to look for. Longer term projects like those available through Citizen Sky, watching and recording the changing brightness of variable stars might even add to your target list. Perhaps you’ll dispense of your telescope and sit in a deck chair watching meteors. But what about the sort of things that pop into the eyepiece of a larger astronomical facility. How do they decide what to do?
The normal way of doing things is to submit a proposal that shows, using peer reviewed evidence, the importance of your observations and why they can only be performed at the facility requested. The facility may have certain fractions of its time dedicated to certain types of astronomy, meaning the chances of getting observing time in that field could be greater than others. The observing proposal will then go before a panel who will choose the observations that should make the best use of a night, a few nights or a part of a night’s time, or they may piggyback observations one onto another, allowing one group time so long as they also do some additional work.
In the case of the Herschel Infrared Space Telescope, the upcoming target list for the next month has been published at this page. You can pick between the different instruments of the probe and see whereabouts in the sky the bits and pieces it will be viewing are. The background image of the sky can also be displayed in a number of wavelengths, giving a fuller idea of what is being looked at.
Meanwhile, observations scheduled in support of data from Galaxy Zoo, hunting for the echoes of past plasma jets from energetic black holes, at Kitt Peak Observatory have hit a snag. The last hour of their four night observing run has no targets visible. As a result, they have put up details of the instrument they’re using on their forum and asked for ideas of what to look at (or rather take spectra of), within a certain limit of coordinates. The results of any suggested observations will be posted as reduced FITS data files for your analysis.