Observatory Stories “Don’t Touch the Telescope!” Edition

Touching and grabbing the telescope by the tube or the eyepiece is one of the biggest no-no’s when being a guest at an observatory or star party. While it is a natural reaction for people, as they are merely trying to find the eyepiece in the dark,  it’s still something that many people need to understand can be a major hindrance. Most of the time when in the public, it’s due to language barriers, but there have been times when it was out of sheer lack of common sense.

It happens Everywhere, Not Just the Observatory!

This is nothing new to yours truly. If one recalls my experiences with the 2017 Solar Eclipse, an unruly child nearly ruined my experience by purposely pushing on my telescope with less than a minute or so before totality.

I was too busy to notice the children because I was carefully taking off my solar filter. My father noticed them and  repeatedly told them not to touch the telescope, only for one kid to say, “you mean like this?” as he pushed on the tube exactly when the filter came off.

Thankfully, I acted on instinct in the moment of crisis, got everything fixed, and filmed all of totality for that eclipse.

No matter how many times I remind people, there’s always those who didn’t hear me.

These Things Happen All the Time: 

  • Plenty of visitors instinctively put their hands on the eyepiece, usually because they haven’t been told the instructions or aren’t paying attention when I do say it.
  • A lot of visitors think that twisting the eyepiece adjusts the focus or zooms in, which of course it does not. Because they remember seeing such an action on a TV show or cartoon, they assume that and don’t bother asking until after they attempt it.
  • Other times, it’s because they don’t understand English. I’m not multilingual either, and while there’s a few phrases I can say in a few other languages, there’s too many to count that visit the Observatory.
  • Toddlers, who are usually not developed in their coordination skills just yet, instinctively grab the eyepiece despite their parents telling them not to, only for the adults to hold their toddler’s arms back.
  • Plenty of visitors putting their hands on the telescope and using it to balance themselves, despite there being a step ladder with a railing to hold on to.
  • Children, elderly, and virtually anyone too short to reach the eyepiece without aid, attempting to pull on the eyepiece, thinking doing that would bring the telescope to their level.

When Language Barriers Were Too Much

One time I caught the typical visitor putting his hands on the eyepiece, followed by my typical routine response. “No touching, please!” “Okay,” was his response. But he still kept his hand on the eyepiece. “Sir, take your hands off!” “Okay.” Nope, still didn’t take his hands off. I said, “That means take your hands off the eyepiece,” as I literally used my fingers to push his fingers off the eyepiece.” He said, “Okay.” as he left.

Clearly he didn’t understand me, and was using the only English word he knew.

I had a family in the line, and after the first viewer was told not to touch, he waited up front to help translate the instructions to his party. But for some odd reason, he spoke to each member one at a time when it was their turn, and each time, the next individual came up to the scope, put their hands on the eyepiece, followed by me saying, “don’t touch!” and THEN the translator said it to the person in their language. This went on for five to six more individuals.

Why the other members had to be told individually was beyond me, especially because they clearly could see the person ahead of them being told not to touch the telescope.

When working the dome, I have a system where I talk to the people outside waiting and give them instructions so they know what to expect before they get inside. But it’s not fail safe!

One night, there was an older couple who made it to the eyepiece, and were repeatedly told by the guide inside not to touch, but they didn’t budge because they didn’t understand. At the same time, there was a huge group of ESL classmates in the line, all talking loudly inside the dome in their own native tongue while ignoring me on the microphone, echoing their chatter all over the dome and drowning out both the guide and mine’s voices. The guide had to get everyone inside to quiet down JUST so we could get through to the couple on the stairs and get them to stop touching!

When Grabbing Went Too Far!

Common sense dictates you do not touch things that are not yours! But that does not stop people from grabbing things like a child impulsively grabbing an attractive toy for the first time.

Out on the lawn, I had a small break in the line, and I was in the middle of switching eyepieces for the C11. The telescope itself was wide open while I was at the cart picking out another eyepiece. Suddenly, out of nowhere, a man came up to the C11, and as he put both of his hands on the telescope, he managed to loosen the clamp that holds the scope in place, and started moving the scope and tried viewing it as if it was one of those coin operated telescopes you see at parks. I caught him and said, “hey! you just moved the telescope WAY out of alignment!” “Oh sorry man, I didn’t know,” was his response to me. Still managing to keep my cool, I told him, “this is why you don’t touch things that aren’t yours!” He promptly left, probably embarrassed.

One night, I was using both a C11 and a Questar. The Questar is a great instrument, and despite being a small telescope it is as expensive as the larger computerized C11 due to its high optics quality, but at the same time it is VERY delicate!


Having a system down so that one line viewed through two telescopes looking at different sights. I did my usual shtick of telling the line the rules, emphasizing how delicate the Questar. As I was talking to the line, a person came up to me and said, “someone moved the other telescope, I can’t see anything.” I didn’t catch the perpetrator because my eyes were focused on the line, but I could see the Questar not even close to pointing in the direction the object was at. After a quick fix, I was back to business.

But moments later, the same thing happened again! I thought, “Holy hell, are people not listening to me?!” Again, I didn’t see anyone touch it because I was too busy presenting to the long line. Okay, another fix, what else could go wrong?

During another presentation, again another person came up. “Someone just came up and grabbed it.” “You saw them do it?” “Yeah, they weren’t even in the line, they just went right up to it.” “Great… of these nights,” I thought to myself. This time, the Questar’s tube had been moved and was oriented as if the perp was trying to look through the tube, thinking the TUBE was the eyepiece. Not only that, I noticed the wheel locks to the tripod had been loosened. and the scope was no longer polar aligned! “How did this person manage to figure that out?!” It took a while to get the Questar fixed and focused, but in the process there were a few people who missed out on their view through the second telescope.

It just goes to show you that a lot can happen in such a short time if you’re not careful. Frustrated, I told a few people jokingly, “if you see this person touching another telescope, please punch him for me!”


People grabbing the telescopes is not magically going to stop. If you own a telescope, or operate one, then you know exactly what this article is talking about!



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