Moving Mirrors at the Roque de los Muchachos

Putting the Galileo mirror onto the lorry
September 18, 2011

The big telescopes at the observatory at the Roque de Los Muchachos mostly use mirrors rather than lenses. Domestic mirrors have the aluminium behind glass to protect it, but astronomical mirrors have the aluminium on top. This gives the best image, but it also means that the aluminium slowly spoils, and has to be replaced every three years or so. This is not a simple operation. The aluminium layer is…


Working on the GranTeCan dome

Working on the massive dome shutter of GranTeCan, Roque de los Muchachos, La Palma
September 15, 2011

GranTeCan is the biggest optical telescope in the world, and it’s hard to convey the sheer size of it in a photograph.  The telescope itself weighs 485 tonnes.  You could fit an tennis court inside the dome, and the top of the dome is 41 m above the ground.  But you can’t see any of that in a photograph. Luckily for me, the engineers did some maintenance on the massive…


The William Herschel Telescope

The William Herschel Telescope at sunset, Roque de los Muchachos observatory
August 27, 2011

The William Herschel Telescope was for many years the biggest and best optical telescope in Europe (until GranTeCan opened in 2009).  The main mirror is 4.2 m across (165″, or 13′ 9″) which astronomers call “a good light bucket”. It’s rather old as world-class telescopes go, since it opened in 1987, but it still produced excellent science. In fact data from the WHT has been used for about 1,500 scientific…


The Swedish Solar Telescope

The Swedish Solar Tower, Roque de Los Muchachos observatory
July 26, 2011

Two of the fourteen telescopes at the Roque de los Muchachos observatory are solar telescopes — highly specialised to observe our own sun. This is the Swedish Solar Telescope, which was one of the first telescopes built on the Roque. It’s currently the best solar telescope in the world since they added the new adaptive optics in 2005. (Adaptive optics compensate for air turbulence.) It can resolve details of the…


Snow at the Roque de los Muchachos

The Canary Islands are known as the land of eternal spring, but that’s not quite true at 2,396 metres (7,861 ft). Down at sea-level, it’s been raining. Up on the mountain, it’s been snowing. Yesterday the road was only suitable for 4-wheel-drive vehicles, but I gather the road is open again. If you’re on La Palma, this is your chance to make a snowman. But drive carefully, and once you…

February 11, 2011

Visiting the Observatory at the Roque de los Muchachos, 2010

La Palma is home to one of the three most important astronomical observatories in the world. (The other two are Hawaii and the Atacama desert in Chile.) The observatory sits at the top of the island, at the Roque de los Muchachos. It’s a fascinating place to visit, but it’s not normally open to tourists – they’re too busy doing science. However, the IAC who run the site are organising…

June 17, 2010