Observation of the Canarian sky has had to stop dead. Neither the astrophysical telescopes of the Roque de Los Muchachos in La Palma, nor those of Teide they will work for at least the next two weeks. It is not an essential service and the ultimate determination of the state government has caused that, after 15 days of minimum services, the steering committee of the Canary Islands Astrophysics Institute (IAC) I have decided this past Sunday to shut them down. Yes, guaranteeing security against vandalism of these expensive astronomical observation devices and their periodic maintenance in order to prevent them from being damaged during the time that the restriction.
Although this complete closure -which also affects the headquarters located on both islands- means the total suspension of astronomical observation and technological developments, 95% of the workforce (about 400 people) is telecommuting either to write new articles. scientists or to update knowledge of their specific area or train, as explained by the administrator of General Services of the IAC, Jesús Burgos. The headquarters and observatories will also have the services of outsourced security and cleaning personnel, as well as those of computing, system and personnel connectivity, and data recording.
Regarding the care of the observatories, “there will always be a security person on 24-hour shifts”, as noted by the deputy director of the Astrophysicist, Casiana Muñoz. To this is added another worker who will come to these venues twice a week to guarantee “essential basic maintenance” of large astronomical facilities. “They are routines so that they do not remain stagnant,” he said.
The Roque de Los Muchachos astrophysical complex also houses around fifteen telescopes, including the Gran Telescopio de Canarias (GTC), as well as different scientific experiments, both national and international. For its part, the Teide observatory on the island of Tenerife has more than 20 telescopes. The only one that will remain in operation will be the Liverpool 2m diameter robotic telescope, which is “very robust” and will be remotely controlled from the UK.
In this sense, Muñoz assured that the closing of the telescopes has had to be programmed so that, once the activity is resumed, it can be done without problems. And it is that facilities such as the Gran Telescopio de Canarias (GTC) must be stopped in a specific way so that, when researchers want to use them again, they can do so without problems. In fact, this situation was foreseen for some time at the IAC. Hence, on March 12, an action protocol was launched that has been modified every three days. “We established the non-contact activity on the 13th – two days before the state of alarm was established – and on the 16th we imposed the minimum services,” Burgos explains. Situation that lasted until last Sunday.
Until then, following the recommendations of Health, researchers climbed to the top of the islands to make solo observations – they are usually accompanied – and the work inside the telescope was being carried out with only an operator and an astronomer who kept the safety distances.
The economic impact that this break is going to have for the IAC and its researchers, as Burgos pointed out, “will be no more so than in other economic sectors.” Also in this line, Casiana Muñoz expressed herself, indicating that this is a “significant loss” but was optimistic and pointed out that it will be a “parenthesis” in which, in addition, “we are learning to work differently.”
This situation has caused a disruption among the managers of the IAC who are now considering how to achieve in the future without having to suspend astronomical activity. The solution, according to Muñoz, would be to emphasize management towards the use of “more robust robotic telescopes” that allow “work even without operators” and reduce costs.