THE MOMENT OF TRUTH
Five years after its last observations in England, the Isaac Newton Telescope was ready for its light in La Palma
The night of 13/14 February 1984 proved to be an important one for the Isaac Newton Telescope: it was the first time it was turned towards the sky above its new home at Roque de los Muchachos Observatory, La Palma. As Sir Patrick Moore wrote afterwards in his then-regular column for the Illustrated London
News: “That moment of ‘first light’ marked the real beginning of a new chapter in the story of astronomy in general and British astronomy in particular.”
‘First light’ is an interesting rite of passage for any telescope, or instrument. Few of the resulting astronomical images have much scientific value, as even the smallest telescope needs some on-site fine-tuning to get the best results. Yet there’s often a ‘wow’ factor nonetheless.
The Isaac Newton Telescope, of course, has the rare honour of having had two first lights: its original 1967 opening at the Royal Greenwich Observatory at Herstmonceux, and then – with a new dome and a bigger, 100-inch mirror – in La Palma. Its second first light was recorded using a video camera, delivering images of the Crab and Orion Nebulae, and galaxies M51 and NGC 4151.
Patrick, reporting from La Palma in April for the June 1984 edition of The Sky at Night, was particularly impressed by the telescope’s first image of the Ring Nebula in Lyra. “All the intricate details in the Ring were enhanced,” he later wrote. “It was difficult to believe that we were looking at an object well over 1,000 lightyears away.”
The Isaac Newton Telescope (arrowed) is part of a wider network of telescopes in La Palma