Experiential Education: Astronomy Students and the Teide Observatory

“De Madrid al cielo… de Tenerife”

Astronomers for Four Nights

Tenerife island may sound like a vacation spot for many of us, but for Madrid students, it's actually a lab trip destination. Every semester, our Madrid Campus offers an introductory Astronomy class (SCI 111 or SCI 112) with its corresponding lab section. For four nights, students take advantage of the Teide Observatory—one of the best in the Northern hemisphere—on Spain's Canary Islands to get a chance to work with professional telescopes and marvel at the wonderful night sky.

In Spring 2023, two professors led a group of fourteen students and took full advantage of our partnership with the IAC (Canary Institute of Astrophysics). They challenged the students to be astronomers for four nights.

The Observatory is side by side with Teide volcano in an isolated area. Accommodation is very basic, there are no extra services and lights need to be kept under control in order to best view the stars. Walking among the different residential buildings and telescope rooms can be challenging among the a pitch-dark and volcanic ground area. Night hours are long, so coffee and snacks are essential. Luckily, the weather was good while our students were there (and certainly nothing like New England weather in March).

Students were put in the shoes of professional astronomers and with some guidance from their professors, they were asked to prepare an observation proposal to carry out on IAC80 professional telescope during the second night. After that, they would analyze the obtained data and solve a real, practical problem. Compared to working only on Stellarium (virtual sky observation software) used during classes, ‘playing’ professional astronomers proved to be much more exciting and effective. Students did use Stellarium and various internet resources to select an object to observe and gather some basic physical properties. After the observations, they used another professional-grade software, ds9, to take the measurements on the observed objects and to analyze the collected data in order to resolve the assigned problem.

Students were excited to select their own data in the program and then work directly with a professional telescope to observe the object they had chosen. Many took pictures with their cellphones of themselves working on the control room computer as the images were arriving. They even played with the visualization software to obtain "the coolest" view of their data. One of the groups was especially excited as they were able to observe an asteroid "discovered" on Twitter by the mother of one of the students, Colby White. The asteroid was 2023 DZ2, which is roughly 70 meters in diameter, classified as a near-Earth object of the Apollo group. It was first spotted on Feb 27th 2023. Colby called his mother to share while his group was getting the data and they were able to measure the speed of the asteroid. It seems that this group hit the spot with this observation, because it may actually carry some professional interest, so professors Labiano and Stoev are checking if the data can be published at a professional level, for which students would be given credit.

This activity went in parallel to the regular activity on MONS educational telescope and observations of the sky with the naked eye. Students learned in-situ astronomical coordinate systems and put their theoretical knowledge from the classroom in practice to manually set the coordinates of various astronomical objects on the telescope and observe them through the eyepiece. Some students even took pictures with their phones of the different objects targeted with the telescope. MONS is a fantastic platform for students to learn and practice the basics, and after the visit to IAC80, they saw that the professional-grade telescope has very similar characteristics to our educational telescope.

Because each group had a project to accomplish at their own pace, they could organize their time, tools and workspace freely. This worked perfectly well. Students decided how they used the telescope, when they needed consultation with the professors or when they had to stop a get coffee to stay awake and keep observing. Around 3-4 a.m. most of them went to sleep, but some stayed on and took more photos. During the day, the group explored the island’s natural wonders: lava cave, volcanic lunar landscapes, beaches, etc. and enjoyed local delicacies such as papas con mojo. Every bus ride turned into necessary power nap time… our owls had to work hard at night again after all.

Scientific work always has at least three phases: proposal, observation/experiments, and presentation of results. Our young astronomers made their proposals and observations at the Teide Observatory and then presented their results in class. Professors were pleased to see that some students exceeded their expectations by reviewing professional literature and papers to deepen their knowledge of their target astronomical objects. In the end, all students earned their four-night-astronomer’s badge.

My mom saw on Twitter that there was an asteroid that would be visible for us in Tenerife while I was there. She asked if we could observe it. To my surprise, the astronomers knew nothing about it. The asteroid is known as DZ2, which we nicknamed after my mom—Lisa. We were able to observe it in the observatory known as IAC80, where there were multiple monitors to locate Lisa. As the time came close to 22:00, we focused the telescope on a star within the region of the Asteroid’s path so that the telescope would slowly move with the path of the stars as to get a clear depiction of our asteroid (which was moving at its own distinct speed). Then, multiple images were taken of the asteroid at different periods in time and at different pixel and exposure levels so we could find the speed, potential temperature, and roughly estimate the composition of the asteroid. My mom was ecstatic and super jealous that she did not get to see it for herself. Nevertheless, she was happy for me and my classmates! We included a photo of her and her asteroid in our final presentation.

Take astronomy if you can afford the extra lab costs! It is the type of hard work and research that is enjoyable, and even if you are not a science person (I am definitely not), you will find that there is something so astonishing and intriguing about learning about space. It's a subject that expert scientists only know a fraction of a percent about, but that's because space constantly questions the legitimacy of what is considered to be "proven fact."

Colby White Suffolk University Class of '25