Astronomy Expedition to La Palma

The first Astronomy trip for the College and indeed potentially a pilot for a new educational venture in European education (linking secondary pupils with first-hand research teams) focused on a two night stay at the Roque de los Muchachos observatory, the largest European observatory in the Northern hemisphere, housing some 12 world-class telescopes and arguably the best observing site in the world.

The observatory is sited at 2450m on top of an extinct volcano on La Palma in the Canary Islands. The telescope mirrors range from 1m to 17m in diameter. A group of 3 College pupils accompanied by CEB and RDK were able to visit some of the newest and largest of these and to spend 2 nights at the 2.5m Isaac Newton Telescope with a Research team from Oxford University.


The island is not only the most precipitous in the world (biggest height to surface area ratio) but also geologically one of the youngest. Its southern volcanoes are still active and the fault that runs down the spine of the island will cause 500km3 of rock to fall into the Atlantic, the resulting 300m tidal wave will wipe out the Eastern seaboard of the USA (and incidentally most of Cornwall, Devon and Dorset), of course we dont know when this will happen. The potential for half the island to break off and cause the tidal wave that will at some stage wipe out the Eastern seaboard of America added interest to the risk assessment !


Following a reconnaissance trip in 2004, we were invited to join a post-doctoral research project team from the Oxford University Astrophysics Department. They had booked time on the 2.5m Isaac Newton telescope (formally the largest UK instrument from Herstmonceux) The group had a briefing in Oxford before departure and were on a steep learning curve when introduced to the nature of the research and the data processing required. Our stay was made possible by the generous loan of the house belonging to Mr and Mrs Philip Wetton, supporters of the Blackett observatory at the College. We were lucky to have good weather for the first few days exploring the volcano summits and carters and the black beaches. Ascending to 2450m we stayed in an international Residencia above the clouds operating on astronomer time this means getting up at 4pm and to bed at 6am or so. The two nights were largely clear and the stars amazing. The research into galaxy formation in the early Universe produced new results as we watched. The lack of tourism and an undisturbed Spanish colonial culture made for a memorable visit and many megabytes of photos. Hopefully this trip can become a regular event and it is already apparent that several other Schools are hoping to follow this lead.


C.E. Barclay