There’s a lot to be said for curiosity – it took Columbus to America (o.k., yep, I know there was some greed involved there too, but don’t tell me the man didn’t have an inquiring mind!), and it took man to the moon (well a handful of them at least). Last Saturday morning it kicked me out of bed at 6am.
Now, that’s not a whole lot earlier than my preferred time to rise anyway, but considering how achy and pain-y I’d been for a couple of days, and that Thursday night’s Noche de San Juan celebrations down on the beach at the end of my road, had gone on full volume, and I mean FULL volume, full ON disco trash, well, but WELL, into the wee small hours, putting feet to floor required some effort.
There are just two days in the year when the Canarian Astrophysics Institute hosts an open day at the Teide Observatory, and I’d been wanting to go for years, but never made it. This year I was determined, even had I still had migraine and stomach pains, which had laid me low, I would still have crawled up there! Maybe I was stung by my inability to afford to go to the Starmus Festival which was going on last week at the Magma Center in Las Americas. Tickets were a cool €1,000, so far out of my price range it might as well have been a trip to the moon, though to be in the presence of Buzz Aldrin, Jim Lovell and Neil Armstrong, not to mention Brian May, I might have bent the plastic a bit, had there been any to bend!
To anyone who has ever been up in the island’s mountains after dark I won’t need to explain the fascination. I don’t pretend to any knowledge at all about the heavens, but their breathtaking beauty, when seen without interference from clouds and light pollution, is something I struggle to find words for. If I said imagine black velvet studded with billions of diamonds it doesn’t even come close to doing the scene justice. You have to see it for yourself. One of the things I remember from my first time was my totally inability to identify the constellations I did know, because they were simply lost in the abundance of the cosmos.
It seemed very apt that the moon shimmered so brightly above as I trotted around the block with Trixy. Poor thing she doesn’t care much for the dark, so she wasn’t too bothered that it was such a short walk, she was far more excited about the prospect of early breakfast. By the time I’d showered and dressed it was already time to go. As I left El Médano the smell of smoke still clung thickly to the morning air, (I’d heard on t.v. that there had been a fairly serious fire in El Médano Thursday night, in an old market garden, presumably co-lateral damage from the bonfires) but once on the autopista with a dazzling sunrise reflected in my wing mirror, the air was fresh and clear all the way to La Camella, where Maria, Pilar, Cristina and I had arranged to meet at 7.30. The Observatory gates were to open at 9am, and we figured the first group to enter would have the advantage. It would hopefully be quieter and cooler.
We all arrived in La Camella at the same time, and set off in high spirits. It’s stimulating to do something different. The roads, especially going upwards were quiet. I love it when it’s this way, not exactly an “open road” in the sense it stretches interminably before you, but a winding road, which curves its way smoothly up into the mountains. We were making good time, and found a bar open in Vilaflor (Spain’s highest village) for the coffees we’d missed earlier. Starting off again, we were quickly through the pine forest, and had those views of the other islands seemingly suspended over the ocean which never cease to thrill me. El Hierro was under a cloud blanket, but La Gomera and La Palma were quite distinct, smokey-blue outlines on the horizon, and later we were to see Gran Canaria too. Sometimes you kind of forget that you live on an island, and seeing so much of the archipelago strung out across the sea this way is always a reminder of our place on the planet.
As we passed the spots where just a few weeks ago we’d stopped to admire the tajinaste and the broom, we saw that their time was already past. The flowering seasons here are so short as the summer heat intensifies, and the vibrant tajinaste reds and yellow broom had been replaced by the gentle, blush-lilac of the rosalillo, which now carpeted many areas in spectacular fashion. But we weren’t there for the flowers this time, we were there hoping a bit of the excitement of being “close to the stars” would rub off. There are only three places in the world where this type of bank of telescopes can be found, here in the Canary Islands (on La Palma and on Tenerife), in the Hawaiian Islands and in Chile. In these, three places conditions are optimal for viewing the universe. Weather, winds and pollution are such that there is minimal interference with studies. Atop Tenerife’s mountains the various buildings, all painted a brilliant white, stood out against the crystal blue sky as we approached. My excitement mounted. I’d only glimpsed these mysterious buildings from the road before, and now I was, actually, going to see inside some of them. Places where the secrets of the universe were being unravelled.
Our theory about arriving early was good, the parking was easy, and we entered the actual grounds of the observatory with the first group, after whiling away the short wait cutting out and putting together various devices for figuring out where constellations are, phases of the moon and so forth. Interesting for me, and positively brilliant for kids……..if only this kind of thing had been available when I was in school, how much more interested in science would I have been!
I don’t pretend to have retained every bit of information we were given (although I did try to video on my Blackberry, which didn’t work too well), and I don’t understand the subject in enough depth to be able to translate it into everyday language, so what I’m trying to convey here is an impression of the experience, the “snapshots” which are still sharp in my mind a week later, not a scientific essay. Also lots of the photos are not too sharp. I had the wrong lens with me, and used my Blackberry a lot.
First, a bit of magic – as he began his chat, Alex (as he introduced himself) set in motion the opening of the domed roof of the building in which we stood, and rotated the IAC80 telescope to demonstrate it. I’ve never though of myself as much of a nerd, but a little thrill went down my spine, so maybe I am, just a bit. Despite the brilliant azure revealed as the ceiling opened up, it was easy to imagine being there after dusk and seeing the millions upon millions of stars above. The talk was by no means too technical, the workings were explained to us in language which even I could understand, and so the rest of the morning proved to be.
We learned that not only stars, planets, black holes and comets are studied here, but also the sun and its 11 year cycle of activity, which, as we know, can drastically affect things on earth, like telecommunications. There is also a reminder and homage to those first astronomers a complicated and fascinating sundial. How far man has come in just a few thousand years – and, of course, as on our own planet, we are leaving our junk behind in space! It might seem inconsequential given the enormity of the heavens I described before, but even a small fragment of broken satellite travelling at the speed they do poses a threat to other, working satellites (think of your mobile phone or your favorite tv channel!) or to the International Space Station. Indeed, only a couple of days later we read in the newspapers about the Space Station crew having to evacuate to the shuttle, as one of these pieces of junk passed uncomfortably close to them. Of all the objects circling earth only a fairly small percentage are actual, currently-functioning satellites, the rest are defunct satellites or broken pieces of our attempts to understand space or communicate with each other. They are considered to be out of control, and have to be monitored, as, of course, do natural threats like asteroids. This is just one of the jobs undertaken.
Night time visits aren’t allowed, Saturday’s visits had to end at 5pm, and at that altitude the sun beat down quite unmercifully as we strolled from place to place over the grounds. Our guide was great, but clearly under pressure to keep us moving. You can’t really complain, when we arrived back at the car park we realized how lucky it was we came early – it was packed to capacity, so maybe more folk than expected had turned up, and it was all free, and of course, people with far more important things on their minds had given time to talk to us about their work. I passed on the chance to use one of the small telescopes provided to take a peek at the sun. I hate queues, and I was busy snapping away.
A highlight for me was listening to a young Englishman (sorry, I was at the back and I didn’t catch his name…..and I don’t really think it was Kevin, or was it!……..take a look at their website and you’ll know what I mean, people :=)) talk about the work of the Bradford Robotic Telescope. The primary function of this telescope is educational. It’s used by schools to teach and experiment. Pupils can track and take photos of whatever in the heavens they are studying. Most of the schools participating at the moment are in the UK, as it’s a British project, but it’s available to schools throughout the world. I can imagine little more thrilling than having been able to do something like this when I was in school! Take a look at www.telescope.org, where you can register and take your own photos too. I haven’t begun to explore it all yet!
As a parting reminder that not only is this all fascinating stuff, but also simply stunning, we were shown a video of the Aurora Borealis. It was an apt ending to our visit. It left us with a sense of wonder, a certainty that “There are more things in heaven and earth………. than are dreamt of in (our) philosophy.”