Not only does our dear friend Irmi live in the loveliest house ever, where even the rhone pipes and fixtures are made of wood, in the field next door there’s an observatory with the only telescope of its kind in Europe. There are only FOUR like it in the world outside of the US – one in Venezuela, one in South Africa, one in Australia, and one in this little field.
Wolfgang, who’s an astronomer, uses the telescope to send data to NASA about the activity of the Sun (like solar flares and sun spots). This tiny village in Austria is the perfect location for a telescope – high up at more than 900 metres, and no light pollution.
Our visit to the observatory was fascinating.
Here are seven interesting things we learned:
Number 1: we are all made from stars. That’s probably the best thing I have ever heard. In very non technical terms, stars are made from hydrogen/helium. When hydrogen gets really really hot (that would be around 15 million degrees centigrade) it turns into helium. Helium in turn changes to carbon. We are made of carbon. All the bits to make us came from the stars. We are all stars. We just don’t know it.
Number 2: there are sunspots on the Sun (they look black through a telescope because they are a little bit cooler than the surrounding area). When there are lots of sunspots, there is more solar activity ie there are more solar flares. Solar flares are bursts of particles including electrons and protons shooting out from the Sun.
These protons affect the Earth’s magnetic field. Lots of sunspots = lots of solar flares = lots of highly charged particles flying towards our magnetic field = brilliant Northern Lights. Number two on my bucket list, after bathing an elephant, was to see the Northern Lights from above the Arctic Circle.
It’s now number one. So when to go? We’ll need to keep an eye on the sunspots. Activity has been recorded in 11 year cycles. Every 11 years, the polarity at the North and South Pole swaps. Wolfgang was part of a team of scientists who simultaneously visited the North and South Pole recently to take recordings of the Sun’s activity. That was in January of this year, a peak for sunspots.
He got up as far as the 88th latitude. Pretty much the top (or the bottom) of the world. He said the most amazing thing was seeing the sun rise, and then set 3 minutes later.
The boat which went to the South Pole wasn’t so lucky, it got stuck in the ice.
When these electrons from the Sun reach the upper atmosphere of the Earth, they will encounter oxygen and nitrogen from the Earth. The colour of the a Northern Lights depends upon which of these molecules is hit and how high up. Red – oxygen at higher than 150 miles. Green – oxygen at lower than 150 miles. Purple – nitrogen at higher than 60 miles. And blue – nitrogen up to 60 miles.
Number 3: stars are not pointy. Now this shattered my illusion, because I have been drawing pointy stars all my life. All the pictures of stars I’ve seen have had pointy lines shooting out from them like the photo above.
But, these lines are made by the telescope. Inside, there’s a 45 degree suspended mirror to redirect the light you see to the lens. And that mirror has to be suspended by something. So four very thin supports hold the mirror in place. They can’t ever be made as thin as light, so you see them on any resulting photo.
Stars are roundish balls of gas.
Number 3: the Sun is a star. We all knew that bit already from primary school. But we didn’t know that it was 5 billion years old and that it will die when it’s 10 billion years old. So it’s exactly middle-aged.
When I say die I mean that just now it’s converting 564 million tonnes of hydrogen to helium every SECOND and in another 5 billion years there won’t be any left to convert. So the Sun will be a tiny dot, and then ….. pooohf! By pooohf I don’t really know what I mean, whether it will be “gone” or what. But it will be no more.
Number 4: Wolfgang has a slice of a tree trunk displayed on his wall that started to grow (tree, not wall) in 1791 , the year Mozart died. If you look at the “age” lines on the trunk, they are in defined 11 year groups. That’s the same as the activity cycle of the Sun’s solar flares. And from the rings we can see that the tree knew in advance when the next activity would be – that’s A LITTLE BIT mindblowing.
Diverging a little bit too, flies bite before stormy weather (I know because I’ve been the recipient many a time), and elephant make their way deep inland before a tsunami because they feel the vibrations through their sensitive feet long before us, and dogs can tell if a diabetic/epileptic is going to fit before anyone else (there are now helper dogs for this purpose).
Animals and plants, made from the same stars as us (see above), are so much more in tune with what’s going on around them. Don’t get me wrong, humans are “smart” but we sure are dumb too sometimes. And when you think about it, most of that dumbness seems to boil down to the desire for more of whatever it is we desire. Usually money, sometimes perfection.
Back to the observatory….
Number 5: a telescope workshop is cool.
Lord Nelson’s telescope used work by refraction, bending light. Now telescopes work by reflection (with mirrors). Trafalgar, we learnt too, is off the south coast of Spain, as well as a square where pigeons poop in London.
Some of the screws used to make a telescope have such tiny threads they can’t easily be bought and have to be made specially. They are calibrated in such a way that each turn of the screw represents a certain number of miles.
Wolfgang makes – and sells – telescopes. They are made to measure. The biggest complaint of an astronomer – apparently – is a sore neck tilting their head/eye up to the lens. Wolfgang takes a note of your height in order to put the lens exactly where you would look straight ahead without tilting your neck.
Number 6: the Earth is a youngster compared to the Sun. It’s 30 million years younger.
We used to think that one in every thousand stars had a planet system a bit like ours. Nowadays scientists believe it’s more like one in every two.
Despite being this common, our planet is special:
We have water thanks to the Sun. The Sun blasts down some hydrogen (protons from these solar flares) to the Earth, and this combines with a couple of oxygens from our atmosphere to make H2O, water.
So we have water, heat from the sun, the star/sun hydrogen to helium to carbon reaction to make us in the first place, plants to use the carbon dioxide we breathe out and to produce the oxygen we breathe in like a double act, and Bob’s your uncle, we have life on Earth. Albeit it’s a fine balancing act.
And finally, number 7: what does an observatory look like?
Even the maths to make the observatory roof is complicated. You climb up a ladder into a round, white room with walls about 5 feet high. In the middle is the telescope, with sliding doors in the roof to open it up to the sky.
It’s incredible to think that this really clever guy is sat atop a hill in rural Austria finding out stuff in this little room about the Sun for NASA, which then plays a part in helping to determine our understanding of how we all came to be here on Earth in the first place.