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.