Mag­gie Aderin-Po­cock

Sky at Night pre­sen­ter

Sky at Night Magazine - - WELCOME - with Mag­gie Aderin-Po­cock Mag­gie Aderin-Po­cock is a space sci­en­tist and co-pre­sen­ter of The Sky at Night

Mag­gie re­counts her ex­pe­ri­ence con­trol­ling one of the world’s great ob­ser­va­to­ries when The Sky at Night vis­ited La Palma.

When peo­ple think of the Ca­nary Is­lands the usual im­age is Sun, sea and sand, but on the is­land of La Palma, things are quite dif­fer­ent. At the Ob­ser­va­to­rio del Roque de los Mucha­chos, 2,400m above sea level, a col­lec­tion of some of the largest tele­scopes in Europe keeps a vigil on the skies.

It is the ideal lo­ca­tion: a dor­mant vol­cano, very lit­tle light pol­lu­tion and some of the clear­est skies in the world – up to 300 clear nights a year. Due to these great con­di­tions, 14 as­tro­nom­i­cal fa­cil­i­ties are lo­cated here, with many dif­fer­ent types of tele­scopes, and for one night only we were given the run of the place on be­half of the Sky at Night au­di­ence. Armed with a list of re­quests from

Sky at Night view­ers, we were able to use its tele­scopes to gather data. Chris Lin­tott used the Liver­pool Te­le­scope, owned and op­er­ated by Liver­pool John Moores Univer­sity. It is a 2m op­ti­cal te­le­scope that’s fully au­to­mated, al­low­ing it to be used by pro­fes­sional as­tronomers across the world, as well as schools in the UK and Ire­land. Its au­to­mated na­ture makes it very good at re­spond­ing to tran­si­tory events such as su­per­novae and gamma- ray bursts; it has a rep­u­ta­tion for be­ing first on the scene for many of these events. We pro­grammed it to cap­ture an im­age of the Water­fall Ne­bula.

Gal­axy hunt­ing

We also re­ceived many re­quests to take an im­age of a gal­axy, and to get this I had the hon­our of us­ing the largest sin­gle aper­ture te­le­scope in the world, the Gran Te­le­sco­pio Ca­narias. This is an im­pres­sive beast with a pri­mary mir­ror 10.4m in di­am­e­ter, made up of 36 hexag­o­nal seg­ments. The seg­ments are sup­ported and held in place by a 40 tonne ar­ma­ture. All this weight glides smoothly into po­si­tion on the re­quired point in the sky thanks to the scope’s oil-pumped hy­draulics.

With its huge mir­ror, the Gran Te­le­sco­pio Ca­narias is de­signed to look at some of the faintest ob­jects in the night sky. It is sen­si­tive enough to be able to pick up just a few tens of pho­tons per hour and, due to the high ef­fi­ciency of the op­tics and de­tec­tors, it can look back in time to ob­jects bil­lions of lightyears away. Ob­ser­va­tions like that take weeks though, and with our time limited to just one night we chose a re­quest to im­age a nearby gal­axy some 30 mil­lion lightyears away.

At the CCD read­out we were amazed at the de­tails that could be seen: bright stars of our Gal­axy in the fore­ground, the gal­axy NCG 891 and then a col­lec­tion of dis­tant gal­ax­ies scat­tered in the back­ground. The raw data looked fan­tas­tic, but then more time was spent pro­cess­ing the im­age and adding fur­ther data cap­tured with a range of wave­length fil­ters to fi­nally pro­duce a beau­ti­ful colour im­age. Our time at the tele­scopes was short, but we were able to leave with a wealth of data and im­ages that re­flect a voy­age of dis­cov­ery charted by the view­ers. Thank you for your re­quests!

La Palma’s un­usual geog­ra­phy means the ob­ser­va­tory of­ten re­mains above the clouds

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