We tour the Teide Observatory with the astrophysicist Sandra Benítez
We gaze at the skies above the Teide Observatory in Tenerife – one of the best places in the world for astronomy tourism – with an astrophysicist from the Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias (IAC).
Images by Sergio Villalba
When was the Teide Observatory built?
It was originally founded in 1964 with the Bordeaux telescope, which led to pioneering studies on zodiacal light – the light reflected by interplanetary matter. Different domes were built and experiments carried out until 1985, with the official inauguration of the IAC, including the Teide Observatory – one of the world’s best spots for sky watching.
You’ve recently celebrated the 25th anniversary of a great milestone.
Yes, the 1994 discovery of the first brown dwarf, called Teide 1, in the Pleiades open star cluster. It was discovered by IAC researchers – including the current director, Rafael Rebolo – using the IAC-80 telescope. Brown dwarfs are the link between giant gaseous planets, such as Jupiter and Saturn, and low-mass stars.
How important is solar research?
The Teide Observatory is particularly important in solar physics, although it does a great deal of research in many fields and is very comprehensive. We have some of the world’s largest telescopes for studying the sun. We do a lot of research on solar magnetism, the sun cycle and its effects: the sunspots, prominences and flares we see on its surface, the transport of energy inside the sun, the convection cells on the surface and the stellar corona. Our solar pyramid studies the sun’s internal structure with a pioneering technique called helioseismology. This has allowed us to confirm that there is a super dense and extremely hot (about 15 million degrees) nucleus where the fusion of hydrogen produces helium – where the energy that makes the star shine is created – and that there is a layer of radiation that transmits the energy and a layer of convection where the transport of matter takes place.
Are there currently any experiments being done in other fields?
There are projects such as QUIJOTE that don’t work in the optical range. The QUIJOTE experiment, for instance, measures the fossil radiation left by the first Big Bang expansion. By studying this radiation – the cosmic microwave background – we can learn quite a bit about the origin of the universe and its conditions, and try to unravel how everything came about – one of the great questions we want to answer.
And looking into the future?
We have a space debris monitoring programme with a very fast telescope that is able to follow all the pieces – sometimes as small as a screw – by moving very quickly. The telescope is able to follow them and trace their paths. We have a catalogue of thousands of pieces whose locations we know and – in the event they might impact a spaceship or satellite – the team can be notified so it can be moved out of the way. There are several programmes that have a hand in technological advances and benefit society as a whole.
How important do you think it is to share this information?
I’ve always been motivated by pure science in astrophysics – and by talking about it. It connects with a lot of people and makes it possible to share it with society. For a long time, there has been a lack of a bridge between scientists and society, and now we communicators are trying to cover that gap so that people understand why science – in our case, astronomy and astrophysics – is so important. We develop a lot of technology here. It’s basic science that ends up benefiting society as a whole. For example, the cameras on our mobiles were developed by astrophysics.
What do visitors see when they come to the Teide Observatory?
They can experience first-hand the work done here, the facilities and cutting-edge science. Visitors not only tour the outside – which is spectacular in and of itself – but they are also allowed access to important telescopes such the Carlos Sánchez, the IAC80 and the OGS (Optical Ground Station) dome. Visitors access and receive explanations about everything being done.
How would you describe the Canary Islands sky?
The Canary Islands sky in general, and especially Tenerife and La Palma, is scientifically measured for astronomical observation. It’s so pristine, crystalline and transparent that it’s good for science but also for inspiration. People here watch the sky a lot; it’s quite a hobby. The atmosphere is better than in many other places.
What places would you recommend for sky watching in Tenerife?
The island’s best spots are the Teide Observatory and the National Park. We often go to its viewpoints to do astrophotography There are also very nice beaches such as Benijo beach in the north that allow you to see the stars very well. Another is Diego Hernández beach, in the southeast, where I’ve seen a spectacular meteor shower, which is a very rare phenomenon to see at sea level.
What do you like to look for this time of year?
On winter nights, you can see Orion, one of my favourite constellations. As well as the belt, you can see two giant stars, a red one that is Betelgeuse (the shoulder) and a blue one that is Rigel (the foot). The red giant is a very old star and the blue one is very young.
The tours of the Teide Observatory are temporarily suspended, but you can find information about it and see all updates on the website of the Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias.