After the rain

Apr 14, 2012 in Chile

After the rain

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. I hadn’t really seen it properly since I was in Zambia, 11 years ago. So I was really happy to see it again tonight, rising behind the telescopes in the small hours. It will be visible for the next few months, and I will be taking a lot more photographs of it.

Bad weather at Paranal

Apr 09, 2012 in Chile

Bad weather at Paranal

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.

ALMA

Nov 25, 2011 in Atacama 2011

ALMA

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 San Pedro to the ALMA base camp, near the village of Toconao at 2900m above sea level. We had medical tests here, to check blood pressure and oxygenation, before heading on up to the heights. I knew from previous trips to high altitude that I was probably going to feel spaced out and confused, and it turned out as I expected; I felt a little bit out of body by the time we got up to 5100m, hardly able to understand what people said to me and only capable of shuffling slowly across the plateau from the main building to the antennae.

My oxygen-deprived memories are very hazy but I think it was awesome. The array is not complete and only about a third of the eventual number of antennae have been installed so far, but it looked incredibly futuristic with all of the dishes strung out across the barren desert plateau. I staggered around and took lots of photos, and occasionally took shots of oxygen from the canisters we’d all been given.

Paranal

Nov 01, 2011 in Chile

Paranal

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.

Observatorio del Teide

Oct 27, 2010 in Tenerife 2010

Observatorio del Teide

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 not from nearby Tenerife North airport, but Tenerife South, 50 miles away at the other end of the island. I leapt into a taxi and sped off. I picked a good driver, we made excellent time and in the end I easily made the flight. Next time I’m here, though, I’ll check my bookings a bit more carefully.

Icing on the cake

Apr 12, 2010 in Iceland 2010

Icing on the cake

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 began to drop and the lights got brighter.

We reached sea level at about 3am. I was beginning to get a tiny bit worried – my flight was leaving Keflavík at 8am and it was going to take a few more hours yet to reach Reykjavík. But if I missed my flight, then so be it. Right now I was just concerned with feeling awestruck. We stopped at Skógafoss, reinflated the tyres a bit more, and here the lights were stunning, flying overhead like curtains billowing in a colossal breeze.

We drove on, stopping in the middle of nowhere briefly to pick up some people whose car had broken down as they were trying to get to the volcano. The lights seemed brighter than I ever remembered them and at the end of a spectacular day of travelling, this was almost too much to take in. I was having a natural wonder overdose.

We headed on. The small hours grew larger, and I fell fast asleep. I woke as we approached Reykjavík, where we arrived at 5am. I had just enough time to brew a painfully strong coffee before heading back to the airport as the sun was rising. My weekend had been perilously close to turning into an appalling waste of time and money but we’d snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. I could not have been happier as I headed back to the UK. Later it turned out that just a few hours after I’d been there, the Fimmvörðuháls eruption stopped. After a day of calm, a new and much bigger eruption started a few miles away, causing massive disruption to European air travel as a huge ash cloud drifted over the continent. Much as I’d have loved to see that, my timing was pretty good. If I hadn’t left when I did I might still be there now.

Snæfell is still calling me. I’ll be going back to Iceland before too long.

La Silla alternative view

Jan 06, 2010 in Chile and Peru 2009

La Silla alternative view

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.

Still trailing

Dec 22, 2009 in Chile and Peru 2009

Still trailing

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.

Control room

Dec 21, 2009 in Chile and Peru 2009

Control room

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 loudly and cheesily every hour. Somehow the intervals between the chimes seemed much shorter than an hour, and I felt like each ridiculous chime was marking the passage of an hour of my life that I wouldn’t get back. Later, we met a Swiss astronomer using the Swiss national telescope. One evening we went out to see their set up, and saw their spectacularly nice kitchen and lounge area. He claimed that the cuckoo clock was the legacy of a terrible misunderstanding when the control room was being refurbished. Someone had said it should be “like what the Swiss have got”, or something like that, but somehow this was understood as a request for Swiss touches, and hence a cuckoo clock was purchased.

Rotation

Dec 20, 2009 in Chile and Peru 2009

Rotation

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.