Greetings from Spain!

  • Sunset kisses the dome that encases the 4.2-meter William Herschel Telescope, located at the Observatorio del Roque de los Muchachos, 2,400 meters above the Atlantic Ocean on the Spanish island of La Palma.
  • from R. Jay GaBany

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The Observatorio del Roque de los Muchachos on La Palma, Canary Islands

During the past thirty years, I have been professionally associated with the travel industry- first managing large travel agencies that helped companies control their travel expenditures then designing on-line reservation systems that accomplished the same. I've often stopped to consider how many airline tickets I've directly or indirectly sold to travelers over the intervening years and the number is always surprising- a conservative estimate exceeds $5 billion. This number is full of irony, however, because I personally do not enjoy flying! So, my family was somewhat surprised to hear the news about my receipt and immediate acceptance of a surprise invitation to visit the Canary Islands, off the northeast coast of Africa- half a world from my home.

The offer to make this journey originated with Dr. David Martinez-Delgado, an astrophysicist at the Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias (IAC) and the world's leading authority on galactic stellar streams- ancient con-trails surrounding galaxies that trace the decayed orbits of long lost satellite companions. The remarkable email that I received from Dr. Martinez-Delgado in late February detailed his intention for us to collect research data with the historic 2.5-meter Isaac Newton Telescope located at the Observatorio del Roque de los Muchachos, 2,400 meters above the Atlantic Ocean on the Spanish island of La Palma.
  • Located just 100 kilometers off the western coast of northern Africa, the Canary Islands form an archipelago that includes Tenerife and La Palma.

My association with David began three years ago in the spring of 2005 when he chanced upon my web-site and asked if I would like to engage in a collaborative effort with his team. Over time, David has assembled an international group of astrophysicists who share similar research aims and I have always considered my inclusion a singular honor!

The weeks that followed his generous invitation passed quickly and before long I found myself sitting on a plane in San Francisco bound for Europe. Unfortunately, my trip came to a abrupt halt before I got off the ground- engine problems with my American Airlines departure flight forced the plane to abort during powered take-off. Two hours later, the passengers and I were let off the plane- my itinerary was in shambles because I could no longer make my connections. After considerable negotiation with an airline representative, I was able to cobble an alternate flight schedule that took me the long way, through New York, London, Madrid and then, to Tenerife. Unfortunately, I would be traveling without my luggage- it was stuck in the cargo hold of my original flight and could not be retrieved in time for my new departure! So, with my bags taking a delayed journey that would eventually trace my original flight schedule, I set out for my adventure of a lifetime carrying only the items in my computer case.

About 24 hours later, I arrived around mid-night at the Los Rodeos International Airport (Tenerife- north) in La Laguna, a few miles inland from Santa Cruz, the largest city on the Island of Tenerife.
  • The Author and his host, Dr. David Martínez-Delgado (right) of the IAC.
  • Photo credit: Julio Carballo Bello

Founded in the mid 1400's, La Laguna was the first town on the island to evade pirate raids that constantly plagued the coastal locations and thus did not need fortifications. As a result, the town flourished as the Island's capital until the early 1700's when that designation was moved to the larger coastal city of Santa Cruz, where it remains to this day. In 1999, La Laguna was designated as a World Heritage Site and as a result several streets of historical significance, with buildings that have been restored to their 17 and 18th century glory, are now closed to traffic. La Laguna is the also home to about 30,000 students who attend the University of La Laguna. Opened in 1701, the University, today, sprawls across four campuses.
  • Above the University in beautiful, historic yet completely modern La Laguna, Tenerife.

Significantly, in 1975, the University established the Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias (IAC) as an astrophysical research institute which now operates two astronomical observatories, both located in the Canary Islands:
  • Founded in 1959 by the University of La Laguna, the Observatorio del Teide is located on the island of Tenerife at an altitude of 2,400m. First light was achieved in 1964. The Observatory sits in the shadow of Mount Tiede an extinct volcano that dominates the island's landscape.
  • The Observatorio del Roque de Los Muchachos is located on the island of La Palma, at the edge of the Parque Nacional de la Caldera de Taburiente- an extinct volcano and the island's highest point. The Observatory is situated high above the surrounding Atlantic Ocean at 2,400m above sea level. Inaugurated in 1985, by the Spanish royal family and six European heads of states, it now boasts the largest concentration of telescopes in the northern hemisphere with instruments managed by Spain, Sweden, Denmark and the United Kingdom. Other countries are also involved. These include Germany, Italy, Norway, The Netherlands, Finland, Iceland and the United States.
Combined, both observatories form the European Northern Observatory.
  • The Observatorio del Roque de los Muchachos is situated within the Caldera de Taburiente National Park, 2.400 m. above sea level on the Canary Island of La Palma. The dome of the Isaac Newton Telescope can be seen, second from the right, in this north facing picture from the highest point on the Island.

The Canary Islands offer excellent conditions for astronomical observation because of superb sky transparency and a temperate climate that enables research to progress throughout most of the year. Additionally, both Observatories are situated high above the cloud bank that frequently covers the coastal regions of both islands. This altitude also provides unobstructed, clear and turbulent-free atmospheric conditions. Statistically, the La Palma Observatory experiences the second best seeing for optical and infrared astronomy in the Northern Hemisphere. Its sky quality is exceeded only by the Mauna Kea Observatory in Hawaii.

In the early nineteen-eighties, the IAC became a public partnership between the Spanish government, the Autonomous Community of the Canary Islands and the University of La Laguna.

After a few hours sleep at the very comfortable Nivaria Hotel Apartments, a restored eighteenth-century mansion located in the heart of La Laguna offering spacious extended stay accommodations complete with a fully equipped kitchenette and broadband in-room Internet access, David met me with a cab and we went back to the airport with hopes that my luggage had arrived on the first morning Madrid flight- but, it had not.

There's a certain point when you have to accept the cards you are dealt, so we shifted into Plan B and went shopping to replace my necessities- our flight to the observatory was only a few hours away!

The mall we visited would be easily recognizable to any reader- department stores, specialty shops and restaurants lined a spacious, air conditioned pedestrian walkway. One of the anchor stores was named Al Campo and it immediately reminded me of an American Super Walmart. Soon enough, I was able to find sufficient clothes and toiletries to last me for the rest of my visit, if need be, and we were off, returning to the airport. (Fortunately, I was eventually reunited with my luggage on the third day of my visit!)
  • (from left) Julio Carballo Bello and Dr. David Martínez-Delgado stand at the La Palma Observatory's highest point overlooking domes of the Isaac Newton Group.

The Spanish are very serious about insuring air travel safety within their country. Their security people are vigilant and intolerant of nonsense but they also execute their duties with sensitivity- their instructional messages were persuasive and there was an absence of questionable requirements. So, while flight check-in for my La Palma bound departure was a familiar routine, I was also surprised and delighted that I didn't have to remove my shoes before boarding! While waiting at the gate, we were joined by David's post-master doctoral student, Julio Carballo Bello, a native of Tenerife and graduate of the University of La Laguna. His arrival made our observing team complete!

The flight from Tenerife to La Palma takes only thirty minutes but it offers a spectacular view of the volcanic mountains that formed both islands. Operating several times throughout the day, every seat on this inter-island commuter was nonetheless filled and the air of routine I sensed from the other passengers helped reduce my natural anxiety about not having both feet on the ground. Thankfully, our flight was smooth and uneventful. About one and a half hours after landing, we were stepping from our taxi and entering the Residence- our accommodations for the next three days at the Observatorio del Roque de los Muchachos.
  • Overnight accommodations were at the Observatorio del Roque de los Muchachos Residence- a comfortable, modern hotel-like environment conveniently located in the shadow of the observatory's telescopes.

I was expecting a dorm-like environment but discovered the Residence to be a comfortable hotel. The property was clean, the staff cheerful and the facilities showed no signs of wear that one would expect from its approximate twenty-year age. The rooms were quite generous, the bed was comfortable and the window offered spectacular views either overlooking the ocean, one and a half miles below, or of the telescope enclosures that dotted the mountain crest a few hundred feet higher up.

Meals are served cafeteria style, at pre-set times during the day, and guests are expected to submit menu selections by the prior evening. A few years ago, I had the opportunity to share dinner with visiting astronomers at the Lick Observatory, near my home in San Jose, California. It was an occasion for talking and listening to fascinating conversations over a very well prepared meal that I will always remember. I would easily rate the food at the La Palma Observatory as being on par with my recollection of that dinner occasion- everything was delicious, the portions were reasonable and the food had a home cooked, rather than institutional, taste! One of my favorite meals, however, was the Super Snack- it's the meal that gets you though your overnight observing session. This grab bag of sandwiches, pizza, snack foods and drinks (or whatever else you select from the menu) was something I looked forward to around 4AM each morning!    More »

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