Apr 14, 2012 in Chile
After my interrupted sleep I wasn’t looking forward to my first night unsupervised at the controls, but in the end it was postponed again. Early the next afternoon the decision was taken that the telescopes would not open at all that night, to avoid any possibility of water getting in. The “domes” have flat tops and any standing water could spell disaster for all the sensitive mechanics and electronics. So we went up to the control room anyway but no astronomy would be done tonight. It was a pity, because the skies after the storm were stunningly clear. With the luxury of having no observatory work to do, I went out on the platform late in the night to appreciate the view. I moved here in October, at which time the centre of the Milky Way is setting and can’t be seen very well. Now, for the first time, I got a good look at it. It’s stunningly bright and you can only see it well from the Southern Hemisphere. This is a real shame for the 90% of the world’s population who live in the Northern Hemisphere – their view of our home galaxy is completely inadequate in comparison. […]
Apr 09, 2012 in Chile
I’m at Paranal right now, undergoing my final training before they let me fly solo at the controls of the world’s premier optical observatory. My training so far has been seriously affected by weather – of the 11 nights I’ve done, five have been completely lost and most of the rest have been partly lost. Last night the telescopes were closed a couple of hours early, and tonight we didn’t open at all. The telescopes have to be closed when the humidity goes above 60%, and tonight it was nearly 100% and there were clouds right on the peak. Before the clouds came in, though, I went out to take a photo of the night sky. The moon was rising, and Orion was setting. When I took the photo, I couldn’t see the shadow the moon was casting, so I was pretty amazed when I looked at the camera screen to see the shadow of the telescopes, cast on to the clouds below.
Nov 25, 2011 in Atacama 2011
ALMA is the cutting edge of astronomy. Currently being built on the breathless heights of the Llano de Chajnantor, 5100m above sea level in the Atacama, it will consist of 66 12-metre radio telescopes all operating together to perceive detail smaller and fainter than has ever been possible before. I was hoping that at some point during my time in Chile, I’d get a chance to visit the observatory. The chance came much sooner than expected – a trip was arranged as part of a meeting in Chile of all the fellows from ESO’s headquarters in both Germany and here. We all travelled up to the north, spending a night in San Pedro de Atacama before heading up to Chajnantor the next day. It was my third visit to San Pedro. It was strange to be back again, six years after I first arrived there half way through my epic journey around South America. The small dusty town has changed quite a lot since then, with power 24 hours, and cash machines that work. In 2005 I’d had to borrow money to get a bus to Calama to get money out. On the day of the visit, we drove from […]
Nov 01, 2011 in Chile
Part of my job here in Chile is to assist in the running of the world’s premier visible light observatory, the Very Large Telescope. A couple of days ago I made my first journey here from Santiago, flying up to Antofagasta and getting a bus from there up into the savagely dry Atacama desert, to the observatory at Cerro Paranal. What a place Paranal is. I’ve been to several observatories but none have been anything like this. The residencia is an awesome piece of architecture, the scale of the operation is immense, the level of activity is impressive, and the unbelievably harsh desert is terrifyingly beautiful. I will be coming here about once a month for the next three years so perhaps I will get bored of it. But on this first visit, I’m feeling impressed.
Oct 27, 2010 in Tenerife 2010
After the meeting, the IAC had organised a trip to the Observatorio del Teide. Observatories are always great places, isolated and remote, and normally high on a mountain so you get awesome views. I’d been to the Canaries’ other main observatory on La Palma several times but I’d never been here before. It was a calm and warm day. A few clouds interrupted the blue skies but it looked like they’d probably have no trouble observing that night. One of the observatory technicians was looking at the Sun through one of the telescopes so we had a look too, and saw a group of sunspots. The sun had been unusually inactive for quite a while so we were quite lucky not to see just a blank surface. Looking around I could see a couple of other islands across the sea in the hazy distance. Apparently, ancient island legends tell of a mysterious eighth island which can sometimes be seen across the waters but never reached. I could only see real islands today. Back in La Laguna I thought I had an easy and relaxing journey home. But an hour and a half before my flight, I realised it was going […]
Apr 12, 2010 in Iceland 2010
The orange glow receded. Árni reckoned the eruption was much smaller now than when he’d last seen it a week ago, but it had been awesome to see it nonetheless. Our return journey was much slower than the outward leg. The trail had got icier, and the gale was getting stronger. We bounced around so much that I felt seasick, climbing back up to the heights of the Mýrdalsjökull. At one point, another car in the convoy got stuck, and Árni had to jump out to attach a towrope. The icy blast as he opened the door was breathtaking. It took a little while to extricate the other car, and I wondered if we would need to get out and push. I didn’t much fancy that. Luckily we got going again, and pushed on. As we descended, I started to become sure that I could see the northern lights. When we reached the edge of the glacier, we stopped to reinflate the tyres, and here there was no doubt. The wind was whipping up a fog of blown snow, but through that I could see that the sky was full of dancing green lights. We carried on down, the wind […]
Jan 06, 2010 in Chile and Peru 2009
I headed to the airport at 5.30am. Only when I got there did I realise that my flight was not non-stop but would actually involve three legs, touching down in Iquique and Copiapó. I knew that between Copiapó and Santiago we’d fly over La Silla, and I wanted to look out for it. We flew over central Iquique, and I looked down nostalgically at the places I’d been a few days earlier. Then it was mostly cloudy from Iquique to Copiapó as the morning fog rolled in off the Pacific. I started dozing just after we left Copiapó, and soon fell fast asleep. Suddenly I woke, infuriated with myself because I was sure we must have passed La Silla. I looked out of the window over the incredible expanse of the Atacama, and right below me, as clear as anything, were the domes of the observatory. It was good to see them again.
Dec 22, 2009 in Chile and Peru 2009
The nights passed. We lost half of one due to technical problems, but we were a night up thanks to the earlier “technical” night, so we weren’t unhappy. The observations ran smoothly and I had plenty of time during our long hours tracking each object to go out and look at the sky. We didn’t have the mountain top entirely to ourselves. Apart from other astronomers and staff, we also saw vizcachas, Andean foxes, and donkeys rambling around the arid slopes. In the night, the only difficulty about taking long exposures of the stars spinning overhead was that I kept hearing noises of animal movements in the dark, and I was never sure what was actually there. So I’d go to remote parts of the observatory, set the camera going and then head back to the comfort of the control room, the kitchen, or the pool table, where each morning we would continue an epic series of games. One of them was slightly disrupted by a magnitude 5.5 earthquake, which I still maintain led to my narrow 39-38 defeat in the series.
Dec 21, 2009 in Chile and Peru 2009
In times past, the telescope control rooms were in the telescope domes, and observers would drive out each night and spent the hours of darkness ensconced in the dome. But in recent years they’ve moved all the major telescope controls into one room. It’s conveniently close to the kitchen so getting a midnight meal is easy, but it feels strange to be so far from the actual telescope. But we took a trip out there with our day technician, Paul, one evening when he was checking things over. We looked in on the 2.2m telescope and the 3.6m telescope while we were up there, and then walked back via the spectacular views from the 15m disused Swedish radio telescope. We spent our nights in the control room. In our temporary office in the same building, there was a spectacularly good coffee machine which dispensed awesome espressos at the touch of a button. The first night we were there I pressed that button 15 times, and by dawn I felt slightly unusual. In subsequent nights I kept my button presses to single figures. The only thing I seriously didn’t like about the control room was its bizarre cuckoo clock, which chimed […]
Dec 20, 2009 in Chile and Peru 2009
Our run started early, in the end. A whole night was scheduled for technical work which ended up being finished early, so we were let at the NTT controls a night ahead of plan. This was a bonus, and we set to work, observing luminous stars in our galaxy and two others a few tens of thousands of light years away. I had time during the night to set up some star trail shots. The sky was stunningly clear, even if the humidity stayed just a little bit too high for conditions to be absolutely perfect. The unfamiliar southern stars were amazingly bright, and the arc of the Milky Way stretched right across the sky from horizon to horizon.
Dec 19, 2009 in Chile and Peru 2009
We got a bus to La Serena, spent a night there and then headed up to the observatory at La Silla. This was the first major observatory built in the southern hemisphere, and the list of incredible discoveries made here is long and impressive. But ESO’s main observatory these days is at Paranal, a few hundred miles further north. The atmosphere at La Silla is one of faded glory and a place whose best years are behind it. Most of the telescope domes are now unused. But the telescopes that still run are still among the best in the world, and we had five nights on the largest of them, the 3.6m New Technology Telescope. But because of the transport schedule, we had to arrive at the observatory three nights before our run started. So we had plenty of time to appreciate the incredible scenery up here on the southern fringes of the Atacama desert. The food was awesome, we made extensive use of the ice cream machine, we watched condors hover over the desert, and I discovered the best coffee machine in the world. All was good.
Mar 26, 2009 in Madrid 2009
ESAC was a good place to work. It was way out in the countryside, peaceful and sunny, and they supplied enough coffee to keep me happy. I got into a nice routine of walking from where I was staying on Santo Domingo up via San Bernardo and a few cafes to the bus stop on Alberto Aguilera. Mornings were healthily punctuated by coffee breaks. Afternoons were a bit trickier, with large and very cheap lunches being followed by a long session of hard core data reduction. By the end of the day I was normally flagging severely, falling unconscious on the bus back to Madrid and having to revive myself with more strong coffees on the way back down to Santo Domingo.
May 19, 2008 in Berlin 2008
Five months into 2008 and I was onto my fifth trip of the year. I went to Potsdam for a week to learn how to analyse a certain type of astronomical data. Unfortunately the weekend before was the Miglia Quadrato, London’s fantastic all-night treasure hunt. I spent a Saturday night driving around the City of London hunting for clues until 5am, grabbed a couple of hours sleep and then headed to Stansted for a flight to Schönefeld. I got an S-bahn into Berlin, then another S-bahn out to Potsdam, finally arriving at my hostel at 1am. Each day’s work for the next week started at 9am, and it took me until about Thursday to recover from the weekend. Working in Potsdam was pretty awesome. Each morning I would get up at 7am, wander up through Babelsberg via a bakery to buy breakfast and lunch, meet a friend from work who was also here for the week, and then walk up through fields and narrow lanes to the Astrophysikalisches Intstitut. The peacefulness was amazing, and I thought it was great for the week that I was there, but by Friday I was missing noise and bustle. We headed for Berlin.
Jun 24, 2007 in La Palma 2007
I don’t think any visit to La Palma would be complete without a visit to the Roque de los Muchachos. I particularly like going there early in the morning after a long night at the telescope, when it’s always empty. We drove up there, via the steep and twisting back road. It seemed strange to come up here and not check in at the Residencia, but we drove on past and headed to the top. Then we walked out onto the rocky ridge which juts out into the caldera. I took the same photos I take every time I’m up there. I think I’ve photographed every possible view, but it wouldn’t seem right to leave without some new versions of them. We headed back down the road to Santa Cruz. We’d both been victims of the legendary Lionel, who always drives astronomers to the top, but who knows the roads far too well and sweeps around the hairpins like a Canarian Fangio. Trips to the top with him are all about trying not to throw up. Because of this, I drove down in at a sedate and non-chunder-inducing pace, but still just fast enough to get us back to our […]
Oct 27, 2006 in La Palma 2006
During the fourth night, all was going smoothly. The air was dry, the skies were clear, and I was running as quickly through my observing programme as I could. Suddenly, after a couple of hours, the telescope control system started beeping – the humidity was higher than the telescope could take and I had to close everything down quickly. A few minutes later it had dropped right back down. I opened up again and carried on. It did this a couple more times during the night. At 5.45am I closed up and I couldn’t open again. By dawn, the mountain was in thick cloud. The visibility was about ten metres, and the NOT quickly disappeared from sight as I drove back to the Residencia.
Oct 26, 2006 in La Palma 2006
The next night was also lost. I spent a miserable twelve hours in the telescope control room, thinking how ridiculous it was that I’d travelled two thousands miles just to sit in a small room on top of a mountain in thick cloud and do nothing. But on the third night, as I drove up to the telescope, the cloud level was dropping and there was an incredible sunset. As I got to the lip of the caldera, I could see towns lighting up far below. It was wildly windy and the car was rocking but before long it was calm enough to open the dome, and I started actually observing.
Oct 24, 2006 in La Palma 2006
The next day when I rolled up the shutters in my room, I was taken aback to see that the perfect conditions had gone, and rain was whipping past my window. Conditions stayed appalling throughout the day. At 4pm I was supposed to meet my support astronomer at the Nordic Optical Telescope, so I could learn how to use it. I set off, but the rain was utterly torrential, and after a few minutes of driving at walking pace and not being able to see beyond the end of the bonnet, I turned back. The first night looked like being completely lost, but I decided to stay up until dawn anyway. A few people on other telescopes also optimistically stayed up; most went to bed. I kept an eye on the weather station data from within the comfort of the Residencia. At 5am there was drama. Conditions were suddenly dramatically improving, and observers were hurrying to their cars to get to the telescope. I stayed where I was: the NOT is the highest telescope on the island, and its weather sensors were still telling me it was too humid and too windy to open the dome. About twenty minutes later […]
Mar 29, 2006 in Bulgaria and Turkey 2006
I got up before dawn on eclipse day, and walked down to the Temple of Apollo to watch the sun rise. I listened to ‘Mute’, by Porcupine Tree – I’d done the same seven years before on a hilltop in Cornwall, and two years after that by the Zambezi in Africa. We’d decided to watch the eclipse from the end of the breakwater, and by the time we got there shortly before midday, the moon had already begun to cross the face of the Sun. At my previous two eclipse, the partial phases seemed to drag on, but here I felt like the Moon was heading across the Sun at quite a clip. Until the Sun is at least half covered, you never notice the light fading, but it ,gets quicker and quicker, and in the dying few seconds the eeriness is incredible. The sky faded to a deep, deep blue, Venus appeared brightly near the Sun, and the Sun itself shrunk to a single brilliant point, and then abruptly disappeared, leaving a hole in the sky surrounded by the glowing corona. Probably I’m getting used to seeing eclipses. In Cornwall, I genuinely thought there had been some kind of […]
Aug 01, 2003 in La Palma 2003
My two nights of observing went well. The skies stayed completely clear, there were no technical hitches, and I even had time to observe something I hadn’t even planned to, which turned out to be only the fourth known star of a certain type in our entire galaxy of 200 billion stars. I was doing some long exposures of my objects, so I had time to get out and appreciate the night sky. Mars was at the time closer to the Earth than it had been for tens of thousands of years, and it shone brightly and redly.
Jul 31, 2003 in La Palma 2003
The first time I’d been to La Palma, I didn’t know too much about it until I was on the plane to Madrid. My boss had done all the hard work while I was off getting lost on African mountains. Two years later, the situation was very different: I was now the Principal Investigator on a proposal, and so it was much more under my own steam that I returned to the Canary Islands. By coincidence, I was observing on exactly the same dates I’d observed on in 2001. Then, the moon had been full, and Saharan dust had clogged the air. This time, there was no Kalima, and it was new moon, so the skies were properly dark. But just like last time, the taxi to the mountain top made me horribly car sick. I spent my first night on the mountain top recovering from that, enjoying the fresh mountain air, and getting into the night routine.
Aug 04, 2001 in La Palma 2001
We were observing at full moon. Observing with no moon in the sky is normally preferable, but for our purposes it didn’t matter too much, and bright time is easier to come by so that was what we asked for. It meant that I didn’t really see the sky particularly well, but it also made the landscape look interesting and weird at night. Our observations consisted of a never-ending succession of half-hour exposures, so I had plenty of time to go outside and set up night shots.
Aug 01, 2001 in La Palma 2001
It had been incredibly dry and clear when I’d arrived at the mountain top, but while we were familiarising ourselves with the telescope during the afternoon before our run started, the weather sensors were showing that the humidity was steadily rising. Outside, the clear blue skies were turning grey. The cause was the Kalima, a hot wind carrying dust across from the Sahara. By the time the sun set, the atmosphere was so dusty that you couldn’t tell where the horizon was. I thought this would ruin our observations, particularly as it was full moon. But we could still find our objects, and at the huge magnification of the 2.5m telescope, the bright background wasn’t really a problem. So we observed. I went out during the night to see what I could see, but only bright stars were shining through the murk.
Jul 31, 2001 in La Palma 2001
In the morning I got a coffee on Gran Via, and then headed back out to Barajas. The flight had been booked so late that I’d had to go business class, which was a whole new experience for me. I got seat A1, and sat back and enjoyed the flight. Once we’d landed in La Palma I jumped in a taxi and headed straight for the mountain top. We passed through Santa Cruz, the island’s capital, took a sharp left and then wound our way upwards. The views over the Atlantic were impressive but pretty soon I wasn’t looking anywhere but straight ahead, in a futile attempt to stave off car sickness. The road was twisty but the driver was not into going slowly. We swung left, we swung right, we swung left and right, again and again and again, and I thought that I was going to throw up. I barely held it together, and when we arrived at the observatory after an hour, I staggered out and began to dread the journey back down in five days time. It was a fantastically clear day. We had an evening spare before our telescope time started, so I went for […]
Jun 21, 2001 in Southern Africa 2001
Eclipse day. During the night, I had a succession of horrible dreams in which I was in Cornwall again, watching the clouds cover up the crescent sun, or I was waking up in Zambia to find that it was cloudy. And when I woke some time before sunrise I thought my worst nightmares were coming true. I looked out the window to see dull grey skies casting a lifeless light over the land, and my heart leapt into my mouth. Surely this was all wrong! It took a while to realise that this was just the very early pre-dawn light making things look odd, and as the sky tinged blue with the oncoming day I relaxed, just a little bit. We got up and went down to the river to watch the sun rise. Two years earlier I’d watched the Sun rise over pools of mist from a Cornish hilltop, and I’d listened to Mute by Porcupine Tree. I did the same here on the banks of the Zambezi as I watched the sun sliding inexorably towards its rendezvous with the moon, lurking unseen next to it in the sky. There was not even a hint of a cloud in […]
Feb 24, 2001 in OHP 2001
On the wall in the 80cm telescope control room was a photo taken of the dome while it was being rotated. It looked really cool, and I wanted to have a go at reproducing it. I got my chance towards the end of our run when clouds started gathering as night fell, and it was clear we wouldn’t be observing. I climbed up onto the roof of the control room, and Didier set the dome rotating. I opened the shutter and let the dome spin right around a few times, and the shot worked out nicely. Later it cleared up a little bit. At the time we were in Provence, the space station Mir was approaching the end of its life, while the International Space Station had recently been put in orbit. During our visit, both space stations were visible in the early evening. On this particular evening, both would be crossing the sky within a minute of each other, passing through the constellation of Orion as seen from OHP. This would pretty much be a once in a lifetime photo opportunity if I could get it – the two space stations, one new and one decrepit, passing through a […]
Feb 21, 2001 in OHP 2001
We finished observing each night as twilight began to light the sky. It always seemed like an incredibly long time from then until sunrise, and most mornings I didn’t stay up. After a long winter’s night at a telescope, only the most spectacular sunrise seems worth staying up for. But one morning, we got one. The sky was on fire, and a few of us went out to a small hill in the observatory grounds. In the silence of the alpine dawn we watched the coming of the day.
Feb 20, 2001 in OHP 2001
After a couple of nights, the students were well into the routine and there was not so much for me to do. I had time to go out and watch the sky once the observations were under way. A bitingly cold mistral was blowing, the cold wind bringing clear skies but bad seeing. Our stars were badly smeared out by the turbulent atmosphere, which made the observations a bit more difficult but not impossible. I went up to see what was happening at the 1.52m telescope. This one was much easier to use, being mostly automated. The telescope would slew pretty much to where you wanted it, and all that was required was a bit of fine-tuning with some plastic dials on a control panel that looked like something out of Blake’s 7. After I’d checked out their latest observations, I went up onto the roof, and saw three bright meteors blazing by. In 1999, I’d forgotten to bring a cable release, and I’d also forgotten to bring gloves. Keen to get a star trail photo, I’d held the camera shutter down myself for 40 minutes, which nearly gave me frostbite. This time I’d learned my lesson. Back at the […]
Feb 19, 2001 in OHP 2001
The stars shone brightly on our first night. My task was to assist the group using the 80cm telescope, and I soon had terrifying flashbacks to my own experiences here two years ago. Most telescopes are totally automated these days, you just type in the coordinates of what you want to look at and off it goes. Not so the 80cm at OHP. Here you have to do it old-style, with setting circles. Taking pity on the students, as he’d taken pity on me when I was here before, was Didier. Didier was a legend, remembered fondly by everyone in my year, and all years since. He didn’t speak much English, and none of us spoke much French, but this was no barrier to understanding his many jokes or enjoying his company. He watched benignly as we all struggled to point the telescope at the target, assisting when necessary and offering comedy insults at all other times. Luckily it didn’t take too long to get on to the target and start taking data. We were looking at a star which was undergoing frequent small outbursts, and our target was brightening. My job done for now, I slipped out to take […]
Sep 12, 1999 in Iceland 1999
The next day, we went to the airport, two miles out of town, to find out about flying over Surtsey, the famous volcanic island fifteen miles to the south-west of Heimaey. We followed what appeared to be the right road, a rough track leading over a hill, but when we got over to the other side, we found ourselves on the runway. This clearly not being desirable, we went into the terminal through the arrivals door, and found out what we needed to. This done, we went for a walk by the southern end of the 1973 fissure. The eruption from this part of the fissure stopped after a few days, so there are only some very low lava hills, which we climbed up. Once again, we had the disconcerting knowledge that what we were climbing on was not much older than we were. After a little while spent looking around here, we decided to climb Helgafell. This is an ancient volcano, about 5000 years old, which is very close to Eldfell, and is a virtual twin of it. Its slopes, though, are covered in grass, which makes it a lot easier to climb. We reached the top in about […]
Feb 28, 1999 in OHP 1999
For the first couple of nights of observing, we were pretty busy learning how to use the telescopes. We struggled bit on the 80cm telescope, to the amused disgust of Didier the technician. “What do you call ze school for ze little people?” he asked, as we struggled with the setting circles. We did a lot better on the largely automated 1.52m telescope. Once we’d got the hang of things and could set long exposures going, I had time to get out under the awesome skies and take some photos.
Aug 01, 1998 in Australia 1998
The darkness of the skies over Uluru was incredible. Even from the cities, the Milky Way was impressively bright, but out here in the desert it looked like it was painted on the sky. I couldn’t really believe what I was seeing – from the northern hemisphere we can only ever see the outer parts of our galaxy, but from the south, you can look right towards the centre, and our views completely pale in comparison. I walked a little way out into the desert outside Yulara to try to photograph the river of stars. I didn’t spend too long out there in the end – it was getting very cold very quickly, and I was still traumatised by my close encounter with a huntsman spider in Adelaide. I could hear a lot of noises of things moving about in the spinifex. When I thought I heard something running across the ground near my feet, I hurriedly packed up and headed back to Yulara.