Observing

OBSERVING by Matt Burleigh age >30 (just)

This web page is designed solely to upset my undergrads..... and maybe make them think one day they could be doing this too!

Click on the photo to see a larger image.

During the last week of May 2003, while the undergrads were having their exams, I was observing on the Jakobus Kapteyn Telescope (JKT) on La Palma in the Canaries. I have used the telescope many times, but unfortunately I fear this was my last visit. It has been deemed "surplus to requirements" and is being closed at the end of July 2003 (something needed to be seen to be closed to help pay for UK entry to ESO ). Pity, when we are about to enter a "Golden Age" of planet-finding and 1m telescopes like this would be ideal for following up the discoveries of wide field transit-detecting projects like WASP (see below)...

The road leading up to the JKT. A few paces to the right and it's a very long way down.....

Standing on the edge of the Caldera, which is full of cloud. This is the top of La Palma, at nearly 9000 feet. It's a long vertical drop from here to the floor of the old Caldera. This volcano is long extinct, but at the southern end of the island are smaller, more recent calderas. The last eruption was in 1971 (on the day I was born in fact). In the centre-right of the image is "crater ridge", pointing towards the south. The right flank of this ridge is unstable and geologists fear it may slip into the sea one day, causing a tidal wave that will flood Florida (the next land mass you come to thousands of miles to the right in this photo). I could make a joke about dubious elections at this point but I won't, I have friends in Miami...

The JKT at sunset, from the edge of the Caldera. That's the larger (2.5m-wide mirror) Isaac Newton Telescope in the background. It was once stationed at the Royal Greenwich Observatory at Herstmonceaux Castle in Sussex, but for obvious weather reasons came to La Palma in the late 1970s. Today the INT mainly conducts wide field surveys, such as following-up discoveries made by the XMM-Newton X-ray Observatory. The INT's future is uncertain beyond 2006, again for funding reasons....

The JKT telescope itself. It has a 1m-wide main mirror, and a CCD imaging camera at the bottom, underneath the black felt cover (which keeps out stray light). I was using the JKT to measure the rotation rates of rare magnetic white dwarf stars. These objects sometimes have dark starspots which rotate in and out of view, changing the overall brightness of the star. This is one of the few reliable ways to measure the spin periods of white dwarfs, an important parameter for stellar evolution theories.

Oh, and we discovered a comet. 18th mag, or >50 thousand times fainter than can be seen with the naked eye..... This was a near-Earth object (2003kv2) we were asked to observe by Alan Fitzsimmons from Queens University Belfast. Turned out to be fuzzy!

Me at the telescope controls of the JKT, obviously concentrating on something important. The JKT has a fairly large enclosed control room.

Me working on the computer screens that control the CCD camera and actually take the images. Notice the all-important laptop for essential viewing of DVDs when concentration becomes too painful in the wee hours...

Some of the other telescopes on La Palma, viewed at sunset from outside the JKT. The large dome in the centre of the picture is the William Herschel Telescope, currently the largest on the island but soon to be superceded by the GrandTinCan (or GranTeCan as the Spanish builders refer to it) in the distance to the left of the WHT. GrandTinCan is a near-clone of the twin Keck telescopes on Hawaii, which have 10m diameter main mirrors (the WHT's mirror is 4m wide).

WASP Construction Site 30th May 2003

Foundations dug i.e. a shallow hole in the ground

WASP is a novel new telescope designed to search for giant extra-solar planets which transit in front of their host stars, temporarily blocking some of the starlight. The original WASP concept was developed by my Leicester friends and colleagues Pete Wheatley , Richard West and Simon Hodgkin (now at Cambridge). WASP stands for... well, "Wide Area Sky Patrol" is what Pete calls it, although "Wide Angle Survey for Planets" tells you it's sexiest job, and "What A Stupid Project" describes some of the early reaction to the concept.... Belfast and St. Andrews have put a lot of money into building the first production WASP telescope, which should start observing from La Palma in autumn 2003. At Leicester Pete and co. (e.g. Dave Brett) will be involved in archiving and mining the huge volume of data collected by the telescope.

So while I was on La Palma, I took these photos of the construction site. Click on the photo to see a larger image.

Wasp site as seen from the footpath along the edge of the caldera, ie looking north. The site is the dirty patch among the bushes on the right of the photo, a few metres up the slope off to the right of the road. The JKT is directly above it in this view (the JKT is the telescope top right). In the background are the Belgian Mercator Telescope (centre, partially obscured) and the Liverpool Robotic Telescope (furthest left). The road curves 180 degrees all the way around to the right up to the JKT, although it is hidden by the bushes. As you can see, the WASP site is on a fairly level piece of ground on the slope. The nondescript whitewashed buildings further down the road include the N2 plant. In this view, the WHT is way off to the left.

Looking down onto the WASP site from the road near the JKT. Again, you can see it's on a fairly flat piece of ground on the slope, a few metres above the road. In the background are the WHT (large dome, right), and the solar telescope (tall tower).

Yours truly standing in the shallow foundations of the WASP building. JKT in the background. They better hurry up and fill this in with concrete, or the rabbits will be back. And the mountain goats (there was a family of the buggers with dangerous-looking horns munching the undergrowth around the JKT that afternoon).


This document was last updated on 30th May 2003 by Matt Burleigh