Whyever not?

The Roque’s been in a state of some excitement lately. This is GranTeCan (Gran Telescopio Canario), the new Spanish telescope on the mountain top. The photo doesn’t really give you a sense of scale, but it’s huge, with a main mirror 10 metres (33ft) in diameter. Look for the door at the base to get an idea. On July 15th, they had the first light ceremony for it, with the star guests being the crown prince Filipe of Spain and Brian May.

First light doesn’t mean that it’s working yet. It means that they opened the dome at night and got starlight falling on the mirror. I heard on the grapevine that the optics are extrememly well aligned, better than anyone hoped for, but the telescope can’t track stars as they move across the sky yet, and there’s certainly no instruments on it yet. It should be open fully in 2008.

And we missed the whole thing because we were in Wales.

And then we found out that Brian May was observing at the Galileo telescope, where my husband works, on Monday and Tuesday this week. I got him to ask for an interview for Ruido , but Brian refused before my husband had finished his sentence. Apparentely he was interviewed and photographed almost to death at the First Light ceremony. But we now have Brian’s signature on our CD of “Back to the Light”.

I seem to have spent most of the last few days cleaning the house and restocking the freezer, with ocassional writing. Yesterday evening Norma came around, and we updated the Ruido website together.

And today I was tour guiding again – this time for a group of 60 scouts from 7 to 17. Now 60 is too many to take all at once, so we split them into two groups and took the little ones first (because a lot of them needed the bathroom rather urgently.) The questions started while most people were still doing what nobody could do for them: How big is the telescope? How much did it cost? Can you see aliens with it? What was my name? Had I ever been to the moon? What was the name of the dog that went to the moon?

Eventually I got everyone together and took them into the telescope dome. They were very impressed. Everyone is, but most of these kids had been expecting something a tenth of the size. And they were actually quiet while I explained how it worked. Luckily I found someone who could move the telescope, and they were even more impressed. Some of them found it hard to believe that the dome was moving, not the floor we were standing on.

And then the questions started again from a hard core of about ten kids. Are the planets hot or cold? Is Pluto a planet or not? Will the telescope see an asteroid before it hits the Earth? Why don’t they just send a spaceship to look at the other planets? Is it true that if you go very, very fast in a space ship, then you get younger?

I asnwered as best I could. I even made a stab at explaining Einsteinian relativity for 7-year-olds. And the questions just kept coming. Are there any aliens? Could a microbe really evolve into something like us? Why can’t we see stars with the telescope in day time? Couldn’t you make a rocket out of diamond or something, so that it was very hard and could go very fast, so you could get to another galaxy before you died?

And my prsonal favourite: why don’t they build bigger telescopes so they can see the little green men on the moon waving at us?

Whyever not?

Posted by sheila

Sheila came to La Palma with a six month contract and has stayed 24 years so far. She used to work as a software engineer at the observatory, but now she's a writer and Starlight guide.

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