Last night (Saturday) the Draconids produced a pretty nice outburst as the Earth passed through clouds of dust left in space by the comet 21P/Giacobini-Zinner, resulting in a short but strong meteor shower. I had my camera outside for approximately three hours, taking pictures continuously (14 sec exposures every 15 seconds), so besides watching parts of the show with my own eyes (while the telescope was working on its own), I also got tens of shooting stars ‘on my memory card’. Unluckily it was almost full Moon, so the sky was very bright, and the Draconids are mostly faint meteors, but I still managed to see 46 of them in 31 minutes, so the outburst was indeed very strong.
Here is the nicest one (cropped) from my pictures, and if you continue further below, you can see animations of meteors leaving persistent trains! (But be patient, the animations are big and they will load slowly…) Check them out, because you do not see such things too often :) I even sent in a report to the International Meteor Organization, to place La Palma on their map. You can also check their results. Continue reading →
For my last three observing runs, I preferred to have my racing bike with me on the Canary Islands instead of my photo gear. It would have been especially hard (and heavy) to carry my tripod along when I had to take care of my bike box… But now, at the end of the cycling season (and with quite some kilometers ridden on the Canaries in May and August already), I decided to bring the hardcore photography stuff. Thanks to Jonas now I even have a Canon EF 15mm f/2.8 fisheye lens with me. The view angle is basically the same (though the distortion is very different) as with my standard lens, but the maximum aperture is larger, which enables me to capture more of the faint starlight on the same exposure. Everything you will see in this post was taken with that lens. (Thanks again, Jonas!)
Of course packing was hell again (luckily I had better thing to do on the weekend, like cycling, playing with FIFA 12 – call me a child, I do not care :D), and I did not sleep too much during the night (but then almost 5 more hours on the planes, and this was the first time I have flown with a CRJ900). As my observing run starts on Wednesday only, now I have some time to concentrate on photography. The main goal is to take hundreds (thousands) of images again, and make a new version of my time lapse movie, The Starts of Mercator. And there are always some special things to take additional pictures of :) So lets see what we have here.
This was the first time ever that I have seen lenticular clouds over La Palma. They are usually not seen in good weather, so in astronomical terms, this was a bad sign for the forthcoming night… But not in photographic terms ;)
It was only ‘half moon’ (first quarter) over the Observatory, but it is already very bright. Without the moonlight, you cloud see the Milky Way towards the center of our galaxy on the left side of the picture. Now it is only visible, if you know what to look for… The bright path on the bottom is created by the headlights of someone driving up to the telescopes, and as you can see the dome of the WHT is open in the bottom right corner.
The lenticular cloud stayed for hours there, so I took a picture of it (and a whole time lapse sequence too) with the dorm of the Jacobus Kapteyn telescope in the foreground. Plus you can see the dim, outer part (looking into the anti-center direction) of the Milky Way with constellations like Cassiopeia and Perseus, plus you can easily (if you are/were an amateur astronomer) spot the Andromeda Galaxy in the top right corner.
Jupiter (the brightest ‘star’) and some winter constellations rising behind the INT building right before moonset (that’s why the building looks yellow and instead of white).
Looking towards the North celestistial pole. E pur si muove. It is not a real long exposure shot, but 140 (30 sec exposures) images stacked together from another time lapse sequence. The virtual circles are very nicely preserved thanks to the fisheye lens (compare it to the distortion of a standard lens here.)
Orion rising behind the INT. One hour before the arrival of the storm…
And then, at last but not least, the most special picture of the night. It is – again – part of a time lapse sequence, and you can see red sprites on the top, just below Orion. This is an extremely rarely photographed high altitude lightning, if you do a Google search on it, you won’t find many colour images… And to make it even more special, I was outside – monitoring the weather – when it happened, so I even saw it with my own eyes!!! Just as a red flash thanks to my peripheral vision, but I have seen it! Normally they can be seen from much further and at a lower view angle (and then they look more elongated thanks to the different perspective), so this is really the first image I have ever seen taken from almost below the event. Nice :)
I am back again on La Palma at the Observatorio del Roque de los Muchachos (ORM) – for the 4th time already. I have 11 nights of work at the Mercator Telescope, then I will fly to Tenerife to continue there with another instrument. As always, I can only say that this island is amazing. Every time I take the taxi from the airport to the observatory, I can not stop staring out the window to look at the landscape. This is the first time I am here during summer, and I have to admit that the temperature is much nicer up here at 2300 meter, than it is in e.g. October. I don’t need my winter coat anymore, and I don’t need to put a kilogram of warm clothes (knee warmers, arm warmers, neck warmer, wind coat, rain jacket, etc.) on when I roll down with the bike on the morning, a simple jacket is enough. So during the day it is typically ~20°C (but it feels much more thanks to the Sun), while on the morning it is around ~15°C. Now again I took my racing bike with me (and I will have a week of cycling after my observing run on Tenerife), so already here I use it every day to commute between the Residencia and the Mercator Telescope.
I need to ride up once before dinner to start the calibrations (~5 PM), then I roll down to eat (~7 PM), and after a small nap I ride up to catch the sunset (which is around 9 PM) and start the observing night. Then I work till the Sun rises, and go down to sleep around 7:30 AM (and sleep from 8 AM to 4-4:30 PM). The ride itself is 2.65 km @ 6.9% with a maximum over 100 meters of 10.3% (a hard 3rd category climb in Tour de France terms), so it is not extremely difficult, but riding above 2000 m makes every climb a bit more challenging (click on the climb-plot and it will be bigger). But it is very good high-altitude training, and 3 times faster than walking! (I don’t even think about driving up with a car, that’s not my thing :D)
On the last afternoon I rode a new personal best up to the telescope, reaching the ‘summit’ in 11m 09s, which corresponds to a VAM of ~1000 Vm/h (yeah, I know it is not really a pro value, but who cares :D)! My previous bests from last October and this May were 12m 05s and 11m 36s, respectively, so the improvement is very clear. Oh, and these were ridden while carrying a backpack… After this record ride, I took the evening ride a bit easier and recorded the scenery (turn the volume down, if you don’t want to listen to my still quite hard breathing…). It is a nice place to work at ;)
Tonight is/was my 100th night working at the telescope as an astronomer. My first one was back in Hungary as a master student on the 28th of November in 2005 at the 1 meter RCC telescope of the Konkoly Observatory. I spent a sum of 64 nights with this beautiful Zeiss instrument on Piszkéstető, unluckily on 17 of these I was only monitoring the clouds… (Luckily I really like meteorology.) Besides collecting data for my Master’s Thesis I also participated in international campaigns (like the Whole Earth Telescope project). I really enjoyed these runs, because it was the first time I was allowed to work with professional equipment, and also because the telescope is situated in the highest mountains of Hungary, and the scenery was really nice up there. The forest was colorful, in clear weather you could see the lights and hills of Budapest, or even the Tatra Mountains in Slovakia. And in winter, there was a lot of snow, or the mountaintops were just above the fog and smog layer – which is very common this time of the year in the Carpathian basin…
Then after I started my PhD in Belgium I had two runs (and now I have the third, so 30 nights so far and only 2 of these was completely unsuitable for observations) at our Institute’s 1.2 meter Mercator Telescope here on La Palma, and one run (6 nights, but 3 with bad weather – which was really unusual for that season) with the IAC-80 on Tenerife. As I am pretty much in love with these rocky and deserted mountain landscapes, I think I don’t really need to stress on how much I like to spend my time here on the Canary Islands :) I became an astronomer because I wanted to work with (these) telescopes. That’s what I really enjoy in this profession. And probably that’s what I will try to do after my PhD as a support astronomer somewhere… But who knows what future holds ;)
These were the last nights at the telescope, but let me just pick the most important memories from these days, because I completely lost track of time by the end of the observing run. First of all, about the weather: we had only one night, when I did not have to keep one eye on the satellite picture or the full-sky webcam of the nearby Liverpool telescope, but at least we could open the dome on every night (though the last one was again quite crappy). I am very happy that the students were here, because after three weeks in the night rhythm, I got a “bit” tired, and I really needed company, to stay in a good mood. There were obvious signs, that my biological clock stared to break down. First of all, on Thursday we had a visit to the largest single optical telescope of the world, the GRANTECAN, but I did not manage to get up at 4 PM after a very long night, so I missed it… Then some days later (on Saturday), I slept over (this way sleeping 11 hours) and missed dinner (so no warm food that day…), so I had to ride up to the telescope in the moonlight, under the Milky Way (which was – beyond any question – extremely cool). Luckily this did not result in lost observing time, as the students and the teachers were up already. (Yeah, normally I was the first up at the telescope around 7:30 PM, and I was the last to leave at 9:30 AM…) I am sure that knowing that they were around gave a false secure feeling to my subconscious, because I know if I had been alone, this would have never happened. On Friday, we visited the 2.56 meter Nordic Optical Telescope – see the video below. The size of the dome is extremely small for such an instrument (I think the 1 meter RCC telescope in Hungary has a larger dome)… And the whole building rotates, not just the dome ;)
In the second half of the night, when the humidity was again too high to continue with the observations, I held a quite long stargazing session with the “small” Dobson-telescope to the students (and the teachers also ;D). We saw the Andromeda galaxy, the Triangulum galaxy, the Orion nebula (which was really like on the pictures), Jupiter with its dark band and the shadow of Io, etc.
Then on the morning we went to watch the sunrise, and the clouds moving low across the ridge of the caldera (where I sat hundreds of meters above nothing – thanks to Lena for the picture). We spent there at least one hour, as it was truly spectacular. We could even see our own shadows on the clouds, then – while riding down to the residencia – a full rainbow circle too :)
Then Saturday night was perfectly clear, but I was so tired, that although I finally had time (as I did not have to check the clouds every 5 minutes, and the students were able to observe without my help most of the time by the end of their stay), I could not work on my paper at all… :( But at least I managed to finish processing the pictures from my spring observing run (so they will be on my flickr gallery as soon as I manage to get a proper internet connection – as there is something wrong with the web these days here…). Before sunrise, I went out to walk a bit under the perfectly dark sky filled with thousands of stars (something you do not have in Belgium), and as soon as my eyes got used to the darkness, I realised that the triangle of the zodiacal light is perfectly visible above the eastern horizon! This was the second time that I have seen it in my whole life, but this was the first time that I managed to take a proper photo of it :) (The lights in the distance are cities and villages on Tenerife!) Then on the morning, there were absolutely no clouds down above the see, so we could see the shadow of the mountain on the see itself – also for the first time. And I had the fastest downhill ride of my stay ;D (Faster than the students with the car…)
The last night was just long and tiring, with lots of high clouds, and almost no observations made. I am happy that I can switch back to the normal day-rhythm now, because I barely saw the Sun in the last three and a half weeks, and I am extremely tired now (so I really do not understand how did I manage to break my record riding up to the observatory after dinner – maybe the students passing me while waving and horning from the car helped :D).
So this is the end of my observing runs on the Canaries, and although it was much more tiring than my spring run on Mercator (hence I am much more exhausted at this point – so writing in English is not that easy anymore), I am still an observer, and I will be happy to take another observing run next spring, or as soon as I can after the winter is gone. But now I really start to miss things from Belgium; the colleagues and friends, the chocolate, proper fries (!!!), good brown beer, my studio (it is going to be so cold when I arrive home), the flat cycling route along the Dijlekanaal, just the streets and atmosphere of Leuven, and so on. So it will be good to be back. But now I will have some holidays at see level first, which I will use to rest and cycle (I do not know yet how am I going to do these two things together, but we will see). And I MUST spend some time on my paper (still the comments of the co-authors) in the next 36 hours, because I want it to be finished before I take the taxi down to Santa Cruz, to save myself from the stress… Honestly, I thought it would be finished by now, but I had much less energy in the last week than needed (and originally expected). But first of all, I have to sleep. A lot.