Observing in La Palma 2019 – by Matt Fahey

After a very sleepless night we all boarded a taxi to Manchester airport, where our plane to Gran Canaria followed by a second to La Palma awaited. After negotiating security and necking several coffees we were finally in the air. A four-hour stopover in Gran Canaria resulted in an interesting albeit fruitless effort to find food at a small seaside community near the airport and we instead opted for O’Leary’s, a Boston themed Irish Sports bar founded by a Swede (to this day one of the more surreal experiences of my life). Our second plane from Gran Canaria was significantly smaller than our previous jet and we were treated to some spectacular views of the Canary Islands from the air as we transferred. Upon landing in La Palma, we picked up a car and drove to our hotel for the evening, where we took a well-earned rest.

On the flight from Las Palmas to La Palma. From right to left: Matt Fahey, Ryan Cooper, George Greenyer.

The following day we began the drive along the winding road up to the observatory some 2400m above us. Whilst the GoPros we brought with us refused to behave and stick to the dashboard we were once again treated to some fantastic views not only of the sea and island of Tenerife but also of the beautiful landscape of La Palma itself. After a few hours in the car we had finally arrived and saw the first white telescope domes peaking over the crest of the mountain. Upon arriving at the observatory we checked-in to our rooms and then went about touring the outside of the many telescopes resident at the Roque de los Muchachos Observatory including the INT, the Liverpool Telescope, the William Herschel Telescope, GTC and Galileo, although my personal favourites were the dome-less MAGIC telescopes with their dizzying 17m diameter mirrors. That evening we managed to capture a beautiful sunset and experienced one of the clearest skies I have ever viewed, so many stars that even the most famous and recognisable constellations become hard to discern, but the real star of the show was the Milky Way stretched across the sky, wonderfully bright and clear.

Matt, Ryan & George just before we drove up to the telescopes.

The next day we went on an interior tour of the INT, an incredible telescope with a 2.4m mirror and the one we would be using on the trip to complete observations. The INT building itself is equal parts fascinating and creepy. The building was once home to astronomers who worked there full-time and so the second floor of the building houses conference rooms, abandoned offices with partially ripped up carpets and desks with papers and coffee mugs still laid out. A particularly frightening moment was when a telephone behind a locked office door began to ring, the office itself having possibly been locked for many years. One of the things I was happier to discover was one of the most fantastic astronomical libraries I have ever been in, containing first edition volumes dating back to the late 1800s and 1900s and decades of print copies of just about every astronomical journal you can imagine. We finished the day with a tour of GTC, the largest single aperture optical telescope in the world with a mirror diameter of 10.4m, and a walk around the peak of the island.

Matt and Ryan checking out the Wide Field Camera inside the 2.5m INT.

The night of our observations was wonderful in many ways, refilling a cryostat with liquid nitrogen having never handled the stuff before was extremely cool, and being able to see and manipulate raw data straight from the Wide Field Camera as it appeared onscreen was fantastic. A guitar and several Science Fiction books provided some additional entertainment over the course of the night, although I mostly found myself out on the balconies of the building, taking photographs and looking up at the ever-spectacular night sky. The following day we returned home, exhausted but having thoroughly enjoyed every second of the trip. I would whole-heartedly recommend anyone who is genuinely interested in what it is like to be an experimental astrophysicist to apply, as the trip will not let you down, and to thank Dr. Sobral for giving us such a magical opportunity.

Matt Fahey

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