T.H.S Field Trip to the E.N.O. La Palma


Thomas Hardye School Visit to the Isaac Newton Group of Telescopes, European Northern Observatory, La Palma 23rd to 30th November, 2001.

On 23rd November, five students, two staff, and three support staff, from the Thomas Hardye School, Dorchester travelled to the island of La Palma, in the Canaries, as the start of their Field Trip to the Isaac Newton Group of Telescopes in the European Northern Observatory. The five students were Daniel Heanes, Ben Cowsill, Richard Mott, Howard Williams, Year 13, and William Hollins, Year 12. The staff from Thomas Hardye School were Mrs L. Harwood, and Mrs J. Harley. Support astronomers Mr David Strange and Mr Bob Mizon accompanied the party, as did Mr Alan Harwood.

The group needed to split into two parties to travel by two different routes, for this trip, and reassembled at the airport at Santa Cruz de la Palma, for travel to their accommodation at La Galga, La Palma. We ate at the grill at La Galga on the first night, while we met the contact for our accommodation. Fortunately one of our party spoke good Spanish, as the contact person spoke only Spanish. After a meal at the grill we travelled up the mountain road to our accommodation at Casona La Galga and settled down for our first night on the island. The accommodation had been booked through the Rural Tourism Association, and proved to be a villa at the top of a long mountain road, with superb views over the surrounding countryside. After breakfast the following morning, we discovered that part of the local eco-structure included a group of lizards or geckos which inhabited the stone walls surrounding the villa. They were quite partial to “Alpen” and “Cornflakes”.


Casona La Galga



Barranco de La Galga

The following day, the 24th November, was spent exploring the local vicinity. We shopped for food, and visited the local viewpoint at Mirador de la Galga, where we had good views over the Barranco de La Galga. Lots of the exotic plants which we struggle to grow indoors at home grow naturally outdoors on the island.


Bird of Paradise Plants

On the morning of 25th November, we travelled up to the Observatory. Rains had brought rocks down over the mountain roads and at the beginning of the journey, one of the cars lost the oil from it’s sump We were then down to three cars, and shortly afterwards a further car suffered a puncture due to the rocks brought down in rainfall. This was repaired before the long ascent up the mountain to the observatory. The ascent to the top of the 7,200 ft mountain took place for the most part through thick cloud. We were hoping that the observatory was above the cloud, as it is for all but five nights of the year. We were apprehensive when arriving at the top of the mountain that our visit had coincided with one of those five nights! The mountain top was totally covered in cloud; the temperature was 0 degrees Centigrade, and it was raining! At the lower atmospheric pressure our crisp bags blew up!


Inflated Crisp Bags



The Residence

We reported in at the Residence, and waited for our support astronomer of the evening, Javier Mendez Alvarez. We were shown around the Isaac Newton Group of Telescopes, consisting of the Isaac Newton, the 4.2 m. William Herschel, one of the best in the Northern Hemisphere, and finally the 1m Jacobus Kapteyn, which we were to work on for the night.


The Group at the JKT


J.K.T. Dome


William Herschel Telescope


Jacobus Kapteyn



The CCD on the JKD

We programmed in the nights viewing before returning to the residence for the evening meal.We had intended to image M1, the Crab Nebula, but this had already been imaged as part of the Messier Objects in the JKT set of Professional Images. We found that the school from La Palma, who had been observing the previous evening had met with one of the five evenings a year when viewing is impossible, and had failed to image their objects. As part of a collaborative programme we agreed to image their programme of M76, 78, and M103. We programmed in the Right Ascension and Declination coordinates for all of these objects so that the telescope would image these in turn. The images were to be taken using Visible, Red and Violet filters, as well as Infra red, and two types of Hydrogen Alpha filter. For some of the images this meant an imaging time in excess of one hour. View M76 and M103. We watched Javier fill the Cryostat with liquid nitrogen to keep random electronic noise in the detectors to a minimum.


The Cryostat Filling

The weather remained at 100% humidity (rain!), and the telescope dome could not be opened until it had been dry for thirty minutes. It did not look hopeful, but in the meantime we visited the astronomers now working in the William Herschel Telescope. A Portuguese astronomer, Pedro, described his work on Kuiper Belt Objects to us - very enthusiastically at that our of the morning! Just as he was finishing it was announced that the dome shutters were opening, and we walked into to the darkened dome to see this happen.

We then returned to the JKT to open the shutters and start our night’s imaging. Javier explained the intricacies of adapting for non-linear responses in the CCD (Charge Coupled Device) and also in adapting for electronic noise by taking “flats” and “biases” which are subtracted from the image. The students soon followed these manipulations, and were later left to run the telescope by themselves. The telescope tracked from one object to another after images were finished, making “space fiction” noise from the tracking systems and cryostat.

The JKT Control Room with Javier and the Boys

After M76, M78 and M103 (the last Messier object which Messier actually imaged himself) were imaged we imaged some galaxies from the New General Catalogue, at the request of a Dutch Astronomer, Johan Knapen, who hopes to establish a connection between the radii of spiral arms of barred galaxies, and the radius of the central nucleus.

David and Bob set up a small telescope outside the dome during the night. The sky was brilliantly clear, with the Milky Way very visible. David pointed out many galaxies and nebula only visible from the U.K. with much bigger telescopes. Comet Linear was also visible; without the latest coordinates for this quickly moving comet it was not possible to find it in the JKT, with it’s narrow arc-second window., but it was visible in the small telescope. There were many more stars visible than in the polluted atmosphere at home, and many more because of the different latitude. During the night Bob noticed the “Zodiacal Light” , which is a column of light formed by the Sun’s light reflecting from dust in the solar system.


Telescopes being set up outside JKT

We returned to the Residence at 6.00 a.m. I personally slept until the sun lit up the mountain at 6.30 a.m., and visited the Isaac Newton Telescope for our E.N.O. shirts and mugs, but some of the team slept until 15.30 hours. Before leaving the mountain we visited the highest point, Roque de los Muchacos to view the panorama from the top. We e-mailed colleagues at home to tell them of our successful night’s viewing. We then returned to sea level for the evening, and a well-earned sleep.

Panoramic View from Roque de los Muchacos

During the rest of the week we visited the volcanic region of the south of the island to see the Volcano of Teneguia and the Volcano of San Antonio. One other day we visited the Caldera de Taburiente, viewing it from the south , at La Cumbrecita. The Caldera is a vast cauldron formed by land-slip. We could see the Observatory on the rim of the Caldera. We had been hopeful of swimming in Chaco Azul, a swimming pool filled by sea water, but on our visit the sea was violently filling the pool and the red flag was prohibiting swimming. The lads were disappointed because this was the only swimming we could permit on the island where the sea currents are quite strong. When we visited the visitor’s centre in Los Llanos we noticed a rainbow over the road up to La Cumbrecita It completely filled the valley.


The Volcano at Teneguia


Caldera de Taburiente


Rainbow over the Valley at Los Llanos

We returned to the UK on Friday 30th November; again by two different routes The students returned with Mrs Harley directly to Gatwick. Mr and Mrs Harwood , Mr Strange and Mr Mizon returned via Tenerife North and Barcelona. Once home David Strange set about making accounts of the visit to La Palma visible on his own web page and those of the Wessex Astronomical Society and the Thomas Hardye School. David will also make his photo images available to students.

We would like to thank Javier Mendez Alvarez for his encouragement and effort to allow us to complete this observational programme. The students gained much from the visit, in “work experience”, in astronomy knowledge, and in knowledge of the geology of the beautiful island of La Palma, and the school would like to participate in further visits, and also arrange exchanges with La Palmita School in Santa Cruz.

As there is presently no schools travel organisation running visits to La Palma, the arrangements for the visit had to be made independently. At times they were fraught with difficulty, with rescheduled routes etc., in the aftermath of September 11th. We did make it although we are still seeking compensation for extra costs after changes in the last week necessitating our own payment of £40.00 for a taxi between two airports put into the routing schedule one week before the trip.

Teachers who are interested in carrying out similar visits our sending students with our school are invited to contact me for further information.

Lin Harwood


The above is a brief account for those who took part in the field trip (our county science advisor is keen to know about the visit, so has been given references to the web sites, as have family and friends). Our images should be of sufficient quality, despite the variable viewing conditions, to warrant publication in the JKT set of Messier objects, and we will have our own versions made available of these images (View M76 and M103). I will be making contact with our “partner school”, La Palmita.in Santa Cruz de la Palma, to arrange exchange visits. I will also make available, through web pages, information to students interested in future visits.

My thanks to those who made this visit possible, particularly Javier Mendez Alvarez at the Isaac Newton Group of Telescopes, European Northern Observatory, La Palma.

Lin Harwood, Thomas Hardye School, Dorchester, Dorset, England


Links to Related Sites


David Strange - JKT Trip Report

Issac Newton Group of Telescopes

Campaign for Dark Skies - Coordinated by Bob Mizon

Mizar Planetarium

Worth Hill Observatory


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