Observing in La Palma – by Ryan Cooper

The caldera seen from just behind the JKT telescope. Photo by Ryan Cooper.

It’s fair to say travelling is never the most glamorous of experiences and I imagine George and Matt have already detailed the early mornings and long walks, so I think I’ll overlook some of the specifics. That said we did catch our planes, we did ‘eventually’ find some lunch and our heads ultimately hit pillows in La Palma, excited and ready for the days ahead.

Ryan in front of the JKT. See the full video here.

Completely dark skies are hard to witness for most people, light pollution and bad weather hide most of what there is to see, and you must travel quite far from everything to experience it. Fortunately, a couple of kilometres up, there are no clouds and more importantly, there are no lights. It was safety hazard dark and stepping out of a bright room into the inky blackness was surreal. After a few minutes, your eyes begin to adjust and the whole universe reveals itself above you, stars, planets and the Milky Way all clear as day. Minor existential crises can come from looking at an unpolluted sky. After all, our usual view of the night sky is that of mostly nothing with few stars. Here it was the opposite, mostly stars with little nothing in between. It’s humbling if anything, and a sight everyone should try to see at least once.

When travelling, I probably spend more time taking photos then I do anything else. Oddly enough, that didn’t seem to change here. Being able to capture shots of the night sky, however finicky, was inspiring and well worth braving the cold air for, even at 2.4km up. We spent our first nights watching the sky, taking photos and shivering uncontrollably in the wind, desperately hoping the moon wouldn’t rise too soon and ruin our fun. Predictably, it did rise, and that was our call to bed each night.

The MAGIC + CTA prototype telescopes.

Telescopes are simply complex in that you can look at a diagram and understand what’s going on, but building one requires teams of clever people making sure everything lines up perfectly. One small miscalculation and everything’s ruined. For a backyard telescope, this isn’t so much of a problem. For a £112 Million telescope however, the pressure’s on for everything to be perfect. So, when visiting the sites of the INT and GTC, it’s hard not to admire the ingenuity and engineering behind them. Everything is in its place, with careful instructions for starting up and shutting down operations. The awe-inspiring view of a telescopes mirror tends to be hidden by a less sightly metal dome, but one of the more prominent displays at the top of the mountain is the set of MAGIC telescopes, huge uncovered mirrors reflecting perfectly blue skies. If anything captured the beauty of where we were, it was these mirrors.

Photo by Ryan Cooper

Observing itself certainly wouldn’t be for everyone but viewing galaxies and tracking a problematic asteroid are perfect ways for me to spend a night. Inside, the INT is notably ‘well used’ compared to some of the other telescopes, with the lower floors abandoned as though a fire broke out and everyone was told to leave their things behind. The control room is more accommodating, with an odd sense of scientific family, notes and souvenirs passed from one set of observers to the next, all in an effort to make the room slightly less lab-like. It was the perfect place to spend our final night, with another brilliant view of the night sky visible from the balconies, and some real scientific data to manipulate on the off chance we had nothing else to do.

George, Matt and Ryan in front of the Isaac Newton Telescope.

During our last taxi ride home, the driver asked how our holiday was. We ultimately tried to explain that we weren’t on holiday and that we’d been observing the night sky, not lounging poolside. This proved fruitless, to be honest, but it makes me realise I’d been given an opportunity so incredibly unique that I’d never be able to fully convey how excited I was, or how thankful I am that I was selected in the first place. To those that love astronomy and observing, I’d struggle to think of a better experience.

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

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