There’s a reason more than a dozen telescopes—including the largest optical telescope on Earth—have been planted on Roque de los Muchachos, a high point along the rim of a volcanic crater on La Palma, in the Spanish Canary Islands.
In fact, there are several reasons:
- The island is fairly remote, lying at the far western end of the Canaries, an archipelago that’s about 62 miles (100 kilometers) from the coast of Africa (see map).
- It’s not so remote, however, that it’s ridiculously hard to reach. There’s an airport and ferries to carry people and supplies, and there are plenty of well-maintained roads.
- It’s also sparsely populated, boasting fewer than 90,000 people spread around 273 square miles (707 square kilometers). By contrast, my hometown of Washington, D.C., has 601,723 people crammed into 68.3 square miles (176.8 square kilometers) as of 2010, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
- The island hosts a Spanish national park—Caldera de Taburiente—and a UNESCO biosphere reserve, which leave huge tracts of land free of human development.
- La Palma’s volcanic origins led to incredibly high peaks for such a small area: The observatories on Roque de los Muchachos sit at 7,860 feet (2,396 meters) above sea level.
Combine La Palma’s high, dry mountain peaks with low light pollution and reasonable access, and you get one of the best spots on the planet for optical astronomy.
And if this stunning new video is any indication, La Palma is also one of the best places on Earth to make an astronomy timelapse.
Since then Christoph has had his hands full with new astronomy projects, including a visit to the astronomers’ residences on La Palma, where he took roughly 13,000 pictures of the island for timelapse purposes.
Click on one of the above panels to see stills from “the making of” this video.
The video does a [wink] stellar job weaving together the natural beauty of La Palma with the dazzling sights of a clear night sky. I especially loved watching the seeming ebb and flow of clouds in mountain crevices as sunny days gave way to nights swimming with stars.
Christoph writes in his notes about the video:
[On La Palma] one can truly differentiate the Milky Way’s dark dust regions just by eye—no camera needed. It is an incredible view [that] I tried to capture the best I can. … It is furthemore a totally silent landscape, dark and mysterious. Only noises from time to time are from the wind touching the big century-old pine trees, making for its very own orchestral sound. The huge old pine trees, by the way, are responsible for the water management on the island. With their huge needle pennants, they comb out humidity from the passing clouds coming from the east.
He also kindly provides a list of all the equipment he hauled across volcanic mountains to capture his footage, in case anyone else wants to try their hand at astro-timelapses:
- 4 Nikon DLSR (1 x D3s, D700, 2 x D7000)
- 6 Nikon Pro Lenses (10/2.8 DX, 2 x 14-24/2.8, 24-70/2.8, 50/1.4, 24/1.4)
- up to 5 Manfrotto/Tripods
- Stage Zero Dynamic Perception Dolly
- Orion Astronomic Head
- AstroTrac TT320X-AG
- Rechargeable Batteries, Batteries, Batteries
- VauDe Mountaineering Equipment
- Water / Food / iPad with astronomical software
- RedBull, RedBull, RedBull
Incidentally, he had to get a permit from the Astrophysics Institute of the Canaries to film around the observatories.
Technically this version of the La Palma video is just a teaser—Christoph says a “second session” about the island will be coming soon.
In the meantime, he’s been invited by the European Southern Observatory to visit their facilities in Cerro Paranal, Chile, and make more new timelapses. Lucky duck!