Observing in La Palma 2019 – George Greenyer

This summer, I was lucky to be one of 3 students to go on an observing run at the Isaac Newton telescope, almost 2.4km up a mountain in the Canary Islands…exciting right?

Our full Lancaster observing team for La Palma 2019. From left to right: The Milky Way, a pile of stones, a geographical marker, George Greenyer, Matt Fahey, David Sobral & Ryan Cooper.

It was an incredible opportunity to explore the astronomical world and learn about all the telescopes on the island, however none of us had properly met beforehand.

Initial meetings and interviews were a little stiff and uncertain; none of us were sure what to expect or how to act, would we get along? Would I say something stupid? In the week before the trip we picked some targets at which we would like to try to point the INT, figured out what kit we had between us and decided yes, we would at least get along and yes, I would say several stupid things.

The 3 of us standing in front of the largest telescope in the World, GTC. From left to right: George Greenyer, Ryan Cooper, Matt Fahey.

After a really early start in Lancaster, a sweltering pause in Gran Canaria and an interesting landing of the inter-island twin engine, we stayed the first night at sea level still completely in the dark about what to expect the next day.

A standout moment of the drive up the mountain was when we passed through the cloud layer: suddenly we were completely separated from the city lights and humanity below.

The view from the mountain at night and the clouds, down. We could easily see the Milky Way, along with Jupiter (brightest single source), and some faint, fuzzy artificial light in the horizon (mostly coming from the other island, Tenerife).

Up to this point we had stuck to our introverted guns and made minimal small talk, exchanging occasional jokes and awkwardly planning our photography, but once the sun went down on the first night at the observatory and we saw the incredibly clear sky we had no more trouble.

It was as if we had been inducted into an exclusive group of people, and now we all had this shared, breath-taking experience we could barely stop discussing it. Major constellations were almost indecipherable from “normally” dimmer background stars, Jupiter appeared easily as bright as Venus on a clear morning in England, and the Milky Way hung like a plume of smoke across the starlit sky.

We spent the first two days taking as many pictures as possible, walking around getting sunburned and taking in the scenery, and touring the telescopes.

The Isaac Newton Telescope just before sunset. The telescope has a 2.5m mirror, and we used the wide field camera (WFC) to observe galaxies and to follow an asteroid.

I tend to fiddle with everything I can reach so seeing these massive machines up close was a particular point of interest for me.

Finally, we got to spend the night at the INT tracking an asteroid, which while sadly did take out the time we would have used to observe the targets we had planned, was still very much worth staying up all night in a moderately haunted, cold, creaky dome.

The largest optical/NIR mirror in the World (GTC telescope, 10.4m), Lancaster Physics students and David Sobral. From left to right: George Greenyer, Ryan Cooper, Matt Fahey, David Sobral

by George Greenyer

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