School Link with Research Teams on La Palma

(as reported in ING newsletter No. 10, December 2005)

Following an introduction to Dr Rene Rutten (Director of Isaac Newton Group of telescopes (ING) on La Palma), I arranged a visit to the Roque de los Muchachos Observatory in April 2004, helped by a staff travel grant from the College. This reconnaissance visit was essential to see the island and its windy roads and to meet Rene and Javier Mendez (i/c Public Relations for ING).


Spending two nights at the Observatory and being present for the first launch of the laser guide star system developed at Durham University from the 4.2m WHT was awe-inspiring. The desire for outreach and educational use of the smaller ING telescopes (JKT and INT) was obvious and has already taken place following a Schools competition in Holland. Only organisational difficulties, support costs and time allocation are hurdles to be overcome. The JKT was tied up for the period of the proposed visit in 2005 and the INT was fully allocated (it being a dark-moon week) and thus to piggy-back on the observing slot of a research team on the INT became the aim. 3 pupils (ex-GCSE Astronomers) myself and another member of College staff flew out to the island for a week in April 2005. Following amazing walks along the volcanic spine of the island, we tackled the short but travel-sickness-testing drive up the mountain from the Santa Cruz. Javier had organised a two night stay at the Residencia, which enabled us to join the team of 3 from Oxford Universitys Astrophysics Department as they used the INT. The pupils had been to Oxford prior to the trip for a briefing and had read through the research papers. The clear skies were fantastic and though cloud rolled in at 3.30am or so, by that time enough had been achieved with new discoveries being made as we watched. Whilst at the Observatory, visits were arranged to the Grantecan (under-construction), WHT, Liverpool Telescope and the German MAGIC telescope.


The pupils wrote up the trip on return and in one case the MAGIC telescope formed the basis of an A-level research project. In my view the combination of an unusual island and accessible observatory with world class telescopes is unbeatable as an educational experience for budding astronomers. Thanks to the ING team, I am returning in April 2006 this time jointly with another School, again to spend 2 nights on the INT, but with a Dutch research team. The demise in 2005 of the weekly direct charter flight from the UK has meant approaching the island via cheap catamaran from Tenerife (with its multiple charter flights) and only accommodation and car hire on the island are the other main expenses, food and petrol being very cheap.


For more information contact Javier Mendez via the ING website.