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Night 4-6 at the Mercator Telescope

I finished 10 minutes before the start of the twilight on night 3, so as I had no targets which could have been observed in such a short time, I decided to turn the telescope towards something visually stunning to create a proper outreach (PR) picture for our Institute, and the Mercator Telescope. The result is shown below :) The idea that we should release something like this once every month is supported by the staff at the telescope too, so that’s the reason why I made such a labelled version.


My last lonely night turned out to be much more busy than planned, as the students from Leuven and Amsterdam were already at the observatory that evening. So while I was observing, they had their project presentations in the control room, which in one hand was quite interesting, but on the other hand, I could not work on my article… (I have to admit I have serious problems concentrating on it here.) The night itself was not the best, we had a lot of cirrus clouds (creating an amazing sunset – see below), and the seeing was also not that good. Then I had to close the dome for the last hours, because the clouds came up again… Even with far from optimal conditions, I managed to observe almost all the targets of the program, so it is OK.


The first night of the students brought the worst weather I have ever seen until now on La Palma, as it was raining all night long. Luckily we got an invitation to visit the William Herschel Telescope, so after they got an introduction into image processing with IRAF, we left Mercator, and walked to the nearby WHT. Yeah, walking was my idea, as it was not raining at all, and the distance is only 400 meter. (Of course, on the way back it was raining, so we got completely soaked, but it was “fun”…)


The WHT is really huge (for scale, look at the monitor in the bottom right corner), it has a mirror diameter of 4.2 meters. Mercator feels a bit smaller since we saw this :S We got a short introduction to the research done with the WHT, and a tour around the telescope itself. We even got a chance to take pictures of ourselves in the main mirror :) It was really impressive. The clouds and I stayed until sunrise (the students went down to sleep at around 3 AM), too bad that I am only productive in the last hour of the night. I guess this messed up day/night rhythm is not really good on a long term… Anyway, I still love observing.

Tonight we have good weather, so the students can finally work according to their projects, but I need to help them with the system and to give advice about exposure times, etc. It is almost continuous supervising. So the progress of my work will not be fast… But at least no one can say now that I am not taking my part from the teaching duties. Honestly, I like the role of the support astronomer very much :)

Night 0-3 at the Mercator Telescope

Yes, starting with night zero, as I had to be at the telescope already 24 hours earlier than planned, because the previous observer had to switch between instruments (which was not foreseen), so I was asked to join and help her. (I think I could be a really good support astronomer :D) The weather was really bad, we had to close after two hours, as the clouds came higher, and the Mercator building submerged in the layer of 100% humidity. But as that day we were with a car, I managed to transport all the clothes and other things up to the Observatory, which I need up here while I am observing. This is very useful, because this way, I can just ride up with my bike in cycling clothes (carrying only a small backpack for the daily – I mean nightly – food portion), then change to normal clothes on the top of the mountain, turn on the heaters, and start working in a quite cosy environment. (I have to admit it is a bit lonely sometimes, but the sunset and the sunrise, and the night sky definitely worth it.)


My first real night was also crappy, a constant fight with the cloud layer (seen just a bit below the Telescope on the picture above), but at least I got some hours in the second part, when I could work with the telescope. Then I rode down in clouds on the morning. I have no time for anything else than breakfast, sleeping, and dinner down at the Residencia, as I usually sleep from 9 AM to 5 PM. The start of the third night was the worst, I rode up in heavy rain and quite strong wind, but I had to go, because I knew that it would clear up later. But the picture below gives you an impression about the weather at sunset… (FYI, the Sun should be in the middle of the photograph.)


Yep. It was bad. Luckily my cycling clothes are quite water resistant, but it took at least a half night to dry them out in front of the radiators. But at least my bike is completely clean now :) Anyway, in the second half, it cleared out again (humidity dropped from 100% to 13% in less than one hour), so I could start working, but the wind was still quite strong, so I had to keep one eye on the screens (there are 14 of those up here) all the time. Don’t you think, that observing is easy! One has to take into account all the special requests (about timing, duration, etc.) when scheduling the targets for the night, then if the weather changes, the observer might need to reschedule everything, or build a completely new plan from scratch. There are a lot of variables affecting the timeline of the night. So it is not just sitting here and supervising the computers while they work. Not at all. It requires a lot of concentration, and it is tiring. (I am not complaining, just telling facts.) For example, think of the following: the night itself is 10 hours long, plus 1-1 hour before and after for calibrations and procedures (opening and closing the dome, setting up the system, etc.), and if there is a problem, this can be even more. So strictly speaking it is minimum 12 hours of work, and then you need time to eat, take a shower, and sleep. And voilà, a day is gone.


Now (on the third official night) the weather is good, the sky is clear, the wind speed and the humidity is low, so life is much easier. (BTW this was the first evening, that I rode up in sunshine, and not thick clouds and/or rain.) But besides observing, I should work on my article too (as my co-authors comments are eagerly waiting to be implemented), which is much harder here than I thought it would be. I need to improve my multitasking abilities… So, let’s do it. (The crescent Moon and Venus hanging low on the horizon next to the dome of the William Herschel Telescope.)


The last days on Tenerife (with a HC climb)

The 6th (last) night of observing with the IAC-80 did not turn out well, as in the first half of the night it was raining heavily, and when it started to clear up in the second half, then the wind speed rose (50-80 km/h) well above the safety limit (45 km/h) of the telescope, so I could not even open the dome. This way I ended up with 3 clear night out of 6, which is much worse than my typical ratio. But as staff member told me, this autumn was exceptionally crappy until now compared to what is usual at the Observatorio del Teide, so I was lucky that I could observe at least on half of my nights…

On Sunday, I got up a bit erlier (1 PM), because I wanted to use my last day for a big cycling trip. So I first had the longest decent of my life (with 0 cars overtaking me – but that is normal on the way down, so do not start freaking out about my speed please), then after reaching the sea, I turned back, and had the longest and highest climb of my “cycling career”. It was a truly epic climb. I started at 50 m above sea level (ASL) – that was the closest I could get to the water on the road -, then the climb went on almost uninterrupted for 42.2 km till I reached the highest road of Tenerife (which is a private road of the Observatory, so if you are not an astronomer, then the top is a bit lower) at 2360 m ASL. This gives an average slope of 5.6%.


Remember, this lasted for (exactly) three hours, so in Tour de France terms, this is a HC (Hors catégorie) climb – mainly because of its length and partly because of its steepness. Now the cloud layer was thin and low (between 650 and 950 meter ASL), and the weather was perfectly clear and sunny above (I used my sunscreen every day when I rode my bike), while hot and humid below. There was a part (Calle del Risco Caido) in La Oratava, where the slope was generally between 10% and 14% for 750 meters (with a maximum of 22%) – now that was a killer, I had to stop twice (and this was at 5 km into the climb at 300 m ASL in almost 100% humidity and 27°C). After that, I took only very short (1-5 min) breaks at 1000 m, 1400 m, 1700 m, and at 2000 m ASL before I reached my destination. (GPS details here.)


By the time I arrived back to the Observatory I was a bit exhausted (and covered with a surprising amount of salt), but extremely happy, because a month ago I was not even sure if I am able to do such a climb at all. This was the first time for months that I really felt tired (from physical activity and not because of working till midnight)… The one hour which I had to wait until dinner seemed really long (luckily I could skype with someone, thus time passed a bit faster). I managed to do the climb with three 0.75 litre bottles (so no use of the hydration pack which I brought with myself especially for these days…), and only an energy bar and an energy gel. So being a bit hungry afterwards was not a surprise. (I had more food with me – do not worry -, but I did not need it on the bike.)

Then on Sunday evening, packing everything in was again a struggle – I really hate it. Finally after three hours of sleep, I took the taxi to the airport where the largest plane crash took place in history (Tenerife North). But now the weather was sunny and crystal clear (amazing views along the road down from the Observatory), nothing like the foggy day when the accident happened. After a 30 minute flight (on board a Binter Canarias ATR-72) we landed on La Palma, I took the taxi (the second one, because my bike box did not fit in the first :D) up to the Observatory, and now I am here :) Good to be back! In the next two days, till my observing run starts, I will make small modifications to my article according to the comments of my co-authors.

4th night at the IAC-80

The fourth night was finally photometric, with low humidity (8-20%) and stable seeing, so I could observe the targets from our main program. (Yeehaw!) The start of the night was a bit scary though, as the humidity went up to 86 percent during dinner, but then, in one hour it dropped down below 15%. I have never seen such a rapid change in my life. Anyway, just to show something new, I merged some frames together from the footage of the 3rd night, to create photos with star trails.


Thanks to the perfect conditions, the time lapse video of this night is probably the most boring one, but it is still quite nice, I think. And if you watch carefully, you may notice a bright meteor just above the Teide around moonrise. Ok, for the lazy ones, and those, who want to have a look lasting longer than 1/24 seconds, I show you the frame with the shooting star.


This night is not mine, so I am at the residencia, but I have to stay awake if I do not want to mess up my night/day rhythm. Which you do not want to do in the middle of an observing run, believe me…