Sunday, 18 August 2013

This windy, starry mountain

It's a bit windy today. And when I say "a bit" I mean "hell of". About 20 metres per second up here on the mountain-top. Enough to make opening the door difficult, and almost enough to knock you off your feet if you're not careful when heading out. It was a bit scary to climb the telescope tower and remove the cover this morning, to say the least. Unfortunately, the seeing has been so crappy since I got here that we've been unable to do any observations at all. (Seeing is an astronomical term referring to the effects of air turbulence. If there is too much of it the image gets blurry.)

Apart from a disappointing lack of observations, it's been an interesting couple of days here at the mountain-top. Yesterday I headed out for a couple of walks to take in the scenery. It's stunningly, indescribably, beautiful. A few hundred meters away lies the highest point of La Palma, 2426 metres above sea level. Looking around one sees a bunch of obervatories, one of which is the Swedish Solar Telescope where I work. Looking down one sees a big crater called the Caldera. The way I've heard it told, the Canary islands (including La Palma) formed via volcanic eruptions some two million years ago (so they are coincidentally about as old as the human race). The Caldera is located where a volcanic crater originally was, but since then the mountain has eroded away to make it as deep as it is today (it's almost two kilometres deep!). I heard that they have actually found the mountain-piece lying around at the bottom of the Atlantic ocean.

The island of La Palma, with the Caldera in the centre. 
Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Furthermore you can also see the sea, and a layer of clouds far below. Not much grows up here but evergreen bushes and some special flowers. Birds seem to love the place, especially grachas, a species of crow which are only found at the Canary islands, and also very large ravens. Yesterday I met one of the ravens, apparently locally known as Nevermore.

I also got to visit the Isaac Newton Telescope. It was fun and interesting to see how night-time observers work. Especially much so since the data I used for analyse in my bachelor's thesis was acquired at that very telescope.

And the sky! So many interesting new stars and constellations that I've never before seen in real life. Scorpio! Sagittarius! Venus as bright as I have ever seen it! Things high in the sky which at best are barely visible above the horizon in Sweden. Full moon is approaching, so the Milky Way couldn't be seen, and some of the obscurer constellations were hidden from view as well due to its light pollution. But I can wait! In two weeks or so the sky should be as dark as anything I've ever experienced. There is a reason why there are so many telescopes up here, after all.

Love and beauty,

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