Astronomy: the skies of Canaries

Astronomy: the skies of Canaries


The islands are, together with Chile and Hawaii, one of the three world astronomical destinations. The characteristics of its sky are unique, and the law that protects it, pioneer at the international level. This October 31 is the 30th anniversary of the so-called 'law of heaven', which has ensured the quality of observation in the astrophysicists of La Palma and Tenerife. La Razón visits the Roque de los Muchachos Observatory on the beautiful island, which houses one of the most complete telescope networks in the world.

I do not doubt that there are many ways to observe the sky, at least from literature and philosophy. Enjoy the night, from the darkness of the night. Of the stars, of the constellations. From the sky, from a sky that surprises, amazes, and sometimes even disturbs.

Visiting the island of La Palma, its highest point, at 2,426 meters, is an invitation to reflect, to question, to inhale inspiration. On the edge of the Caldera de Taburiente National Park, one of the most complete telescope networks in the world is located at the Roque de los Muchachos Observatory. It is next to those of Chile and Hawaii, the centers of world astronomy. But beyond the romanticism that surrounds the fact of admiring the sky from one of the most important enclaves in the world, when arriving at these facilities, all that almost mystical aura is materialized in work, science and dozens of research projects.

The Canarian 'law of the sky'

The islands have managed to protect one of their most precious assets: their sky. On October 31, 1988, the Spanish Parliament approved the Law on the Protection of the Astronomical Quality of the Observatories of the Institute of Astrophysics of the Canary Islands (IAC). The so-called 'law of the sky' was intended to protect the observatories of La Palma and Tenerife from any type of pollution. In this way the quality of the investigations was guaranteed thanks to a clear sky.

This law takes care of four fundamental aspects to achieve a clean and clear atmosphere. One of them, avoid radio contamination by limiting the amount of radio emissions near the observatories. Another, avoid the overflight of aircraft in the area. All air routes must be diverted so as not to leave trails in the sky. The third is air pollution. You can not install industries above 1,500 meters in height. And, finally, the one with the greatest social impact, to avoid light pollution. "S technician of the Office for the Protection of Sky Quality of the IAC.

Although today we have become accustomed to the type of lighting of the 'led' spotlights, 30 years ago it supposed a drastic change on the island. Overnight, it went from using white light on the street to orange light. Not only the street lighting changed, but also the luminous signs of the shops and the ornamental lighting. Forced to reconcile with the darkness.

The extremely dim light brought with it some anecdotal discomfort. "They said that besides giving too little light, it made them look sick," says Federico. Today, however, they are proud to have collaborated in having one of the best skies in the world.

The purpose was not only astronomical, but also environmental. Excessive light affects the health of people, the habitat of animals, the ecosystem of plants. The Canary 'law of the sky' supposed a before and after in the intelligent lighting, not only in the islands, but at the international level. "The waste of energy of the big cities to light their streets, rather than illuminate, dazzles citizens, preventing them from enjoying the night sky and its stars," he adds.

On La Palma, that conscience arrived 30 years ago.

"When the first stars come out, we start doing science"

Since 1985, the Observatory of Roque de los Muchachos (ORM) has worked in favor of science and astronomy. But it was in 1998, with the approval of the construction of the Gran Telescopio Canarias (GTC), when Spain entered the prestigious club of world astronomy.

"The Grantecan placed us at the top of the observation. Today this telescope is the largest of its kind, with 10.4 meters in diameter ", explains the astronomer of the IAC

It is a nocturnal telescope whose primary mirror consists of 36 hexagonal pieces capable of collecting a large amount of light that redirects secondary mirrors.

Astronomy of support of the Gran Telescopio Canarias works in this great structure of 41 meters of height and 500 tons of weight. "The dome opens at sunset to make the first calibration measurements. Right at that moment I go out to watch the sunset and take that moment of tranquility before the night of observation. When the first stars come out, then we start doing science, "he says with a proud smile.

A good night of observation has to have a clear sky. The sea of ​​clouds must be below. The night must be stable, without wind, and curiously, without the moon. The trade winds complete a perfect equation.

Nieves is excited to talk about the projects she works on. The long nights in the control room make it worthwhile when the recorded data confirms some line of previous investigation. "When we have observed supernovas, for example, and we communicate with the scientist in charge, it's a professional rush."

As an astronomer and as a palm tree, it is a privilege for her to work at the Roque de los Muchachos Observatory because, in addition, she is located in the municipality of Garafía, where she was born. She remembers the moment of the inauguration when she was little, and the talks she gave at school about its importance. "I always say that it was at that moment that I was hooked on astronomy. I looked a lot up, especially on summer nights when I saw the spectacular Milky Way and I wondered what was there. "

LST-1, the new addition

The Observatory does not stop growing and looking for new objectives. Most recently, the expansion of the Cherenkov telescopes. An initiative of 31 countries to build an ambitious global network of instruments of this type. They are telescopes that observe the most energy area of ​​gamma rays, the last open window in the electromagnetic spectrum. We speak of X-rays, gamma rays, microwaves, infrared or ultraviolet.

A few weeks ago, the prototype LST-1 was installed on La Palma, together with the two existing Magic telescopes. They are designed for extragalactic observations such as black holes and supernova stars.

The future of Roque de los Muchachos now looks at the TMT (Thirty Meter Telescope) that competes with Hawaii for its final location. "We would have, together with Chile, the largest observatory of gamma and infrared optical telescopes in the world," says the scientist García López.

On the path of astrotourism

It is an approved international accreditation guide for tourist destinations where natural resources such as the sky are part of it. An initiative promoted for years by the Astrophysical Institute of the Canary Islands.

Today he accompanies a group of Peninsular, English and Swedish tourists. The day does not accompany for the observation by the recent storm that has affected the islands; but manages to keep curiosity and attention awake throughout the journey.

One of the most important things that the Astrophysicist has achieved is that tradition and modernity coexist in the same environment. Roque de los Muchachos perfectly represents how nature integrates with science. "From there, we palmeros understood that we could exploit astrotourism or astrophysical tourism, from respect and sustainable development," he says.

In this way, initiatives parallel to the activity of the observatory have emerged, such as the Astronomical Viewing Network. "We say that in La Palma there are 14 skies because we encourage that in each municipality there is a viewpoint with ethnographic panels linked to astronomy."

The sectors have gradually gone thematizing. Rural houses that incorporate a telescope in their gardens to offer observation activities, wine cellars that include it in their concepts, and companies that organize nocturnal observations at different heights without having to climb the Roque.

Among disseminators there is always a vital need. That science is seen as part of the culture in our country. Let it be a way to awaken curiosity. Knowing what the Laws of Thermodynamics are, for example, should be as important as knowledge of literary genres or philosophical concepts. And, above all, they say, because the future passes through observation. For learning to look and appreciate the details.

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