La Palma – one of the world’s top destinations for stargazing tourists
The Roque de los Muchachos observatory in La Palma, Canary Islands, makes it possible for both world-famous astronomers and tourists to discover the sky.
La Palma, one of the seven islands in the Canary Islands archipelago, is a spectacular nature reserve. Its volcanic peaks make it possible to observe the entire northern celestial hemisphere, as well as part of the southern. Established in the 1970s at the edge of the Caldera de Taburiente National Park, the Roque de los Muchachos observatory has – along with Chile and Hawaii – become one of the world’s most comprehensive and advanced optical observation centres.
When the sun goes down on the island of La Palma, the domes at the Roque de los Muchachos observatory open up and its fleet of telescopes point skyward. At almost 2,400 metres above sea level, the astronomers on-site can observe the planet’s clearest skies.
There are currently 18 telescopes in operation, that work with scientific institutes in 22 countries. It is also now one of the most important destinations in the Starlight project, a UNESCO initiative that seeks to promote the quality of the night skies and with it, astro-tourism. All night and every night, 365 days a year, the observatory’s astronomers study the sky on a star chart, searching for answers to the mysteries of the universe, reaching increasingly remote areas.
One of the most extensive batteries of telescopes in the world
The telescopes of the Roque de los Muchachos complex are a tribute to the ingenuity of humankind. Consider, for example, the Telescopio Nazionale Galileo, the Italian astronomy community’s largest facility; the Swedish solar telescope, which makes it possible to study solar structures in unprecedented detail; the MAGIC telescopes, which open a new window into the universe through high-energy gamma-ray detection; and the Gran Telescopio Canarias, the world’s largest optical-infrared telescope.
The star studies of the observatory
According to the scientist Juan Carlos Pérez Arencibia, the facility’s most important successes include the study of quasars to prove the existence of dark matter; obtaining proof of the presence of a supermassive black hole in the middle of the Andromeda galaxy; the discovery of the first known brown dwarf (a star believed to be the missing link between the stars and the planets); the search for new habitable planets; and information on the first moments of the existence of the universe after the Big Bang. And, of course, the observation work that contributed to the award of the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics to Saul Perlmutter, Brian Schmidt and Adam Riess, for their discovery of the so-called accelerating expansion of the universe through observations of distant supernovae.
One of the world’s top observatories
Experts recognise Roque de los Muchachos as one of the best observatories worldwide, thanks to its location and natural characteristics, as well as its high-quality infrastructure and good connections to the mainland.
Astronomical observation is not only helpful in answering the most fundamental questions, it also has very important modern applications, for example, in mobile phones, satellites, communications and the global positioning system (GPS). What’s more, the fascination young people have for astronomy can lead them to further study in the fields of science and technology.
The volcanic summits of La Palma, and particularly this site, offer an opportunity to view clear, unchanged skies, just like the ones our ancestors must have looked at in the days before cities or light pollution.
Images from Miguel Ángel López Galán