Sunday, 11 December 2011

La Palma Diary - Day Three

Recovering from my first taste of a real "observing run".

I spent last night in this building - the William Hershel Telescope, at La Palma.

The main telescope - with its immense 4.2m mirror - was being used by a team studying quasars.

I had a lengthy chat about their work, which was very impressive.

But I was not there to use the WHT.

I was working in an adjacent control room with student Liam Hardy, from the University of Sheffield but currently based at La Palma.

Liam was using a small telescope with a 0.5m mirror called pt5m.

The pt5m (below, A) sits on the roof of the main WHT bulding (B), dwarfed by the main dome (C).



However it still packs a punch, and Liam was using it to observe something amazing.

He spent five hours tracking and imaging a star called Wasp 33.

During this time an exoplanet about the size of Jupiter crossed the face of the star - a transit.

It sounds impressive - and of course it is - but it wasn't much to look at.

It was nothing like a solar transit or eclipse we're used to (Venus transit, right), when a black disc is clearly visible.

The transit of Wasp 33 was imperceptible to human eyes.

Only later when Liam closely measures the light from Wasp 33 will he deduce the affect of the planet's transit.

From that he hopes to learn more about the planet's size and trajectory, etc.

I made a film about Liam's work and it will appear soon.

But with the "real work" done, Liam allowed me to use pt5m (below) for other purposes.



Namely observing Messier objects for an upcoming video series called Deep Sky Videos.

We slewed the telescope across the sky in search of nebulae, galaxies and star clusters from Messier's famous catalogue.

My mind's a little hazy from lack of sleep, but I think we successfully imaged six objects.

They will appear in Deep Sky Videos throughout 2012.

One thing that struck me was that the images were not the typical gorgeous shots we see on TV and in glossy books.

These one-off snapshots were more raw, containing less detail.

Yet we were using a very powerful telescope at one of the world's best observing locations. So what was going on?

I guess it really hit home that those classic images we see of galaxies in deep space are not simple "photos" (right).

They are usually composites of many images (possibly hundreds) taken with many filters.

They're gorgeous, artistic and have great public relations value -  but to some extent they are "artificial".

The objects would never look like that to the naked eye or through a telescope.

For that reason, I really enjoyed seeing what these objects look like when astronomers capture them "in the raw" (right).

It was a long night (with more to follow) and we were very lucky with the weather.

A huge bank of cloud threatened La Palma through the night (below), but it never enveloped the island.



It was enjoyable, productive and an eye-opening evening for me.

But after 20 hours straight working, I was grateful for some sleep!

Roque de los Muchachos Observatory is run by The Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias. I am being hosted by the Isaac Newton Group of telescopes. The videos from this trip will appear on Deep Sky Videos: YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and Flickr.

Click here for diary day one.
Click here for diary day two.
Click here for diary day three.
Click here for diary day four.
Click here for diary day five.
Click here for diary day six.
Click here for diary day seven.
Click here for diary day eight.

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