About Starlady

Sheila came to La Palma with a six month contract as a software engineer for the Isaac Newton Group of telescopes. That was in 1990, and she's still here.

A lovely calendar

January from the Spanish version of StoryStellArt calendar 2014

January from the Spanish version of StoryStellArt calendar 2014

Vanessa Sancho is originally from Barcelona, but she’s been living in La Palma for the last 18 months. The island’s amazing skies inspired her to produce very good pastel paintings of nebulae. She’s crowdfunding a calendar of her paintings, and I’ve already signed up for one.

The calendar is A4 (opens to A3) and each month includes a colour painting, an explanation of what it is an where you can find it in the sky, a bit of a celestial myth or legend, plus things like the phases of the moon and the dates of the main meteor showers, eclipses and planetary conjunctions. It also looks like there’s space to write, “Dentist, 3 pm” or “Aunt Susan arrives” which is something I really need and many calendars don’t have. See why I got one?

If you haven’t come across crowdfunding before, this is how it works. You go to the website and look at details of the project. If you want to support it, you sign up. Typically, there are rewards for a certain contribution. For example, if you contribute 10€ to the calendar project, you get a calendar (you’ll also have to pay postage later) or if you contribute 45€ you get the calendar, plus a story-telling session, a visit to a farm which makes goats’ cheese. Here’s the good part – you don’t pay a penny yet. You don’t pay until (if!) the project gets enough funding to go ahead.

You can get more details of the StorySTellArt Calendar 2014 at
It’s available in English, Spanish or Catalan.

Monday’s eclipse seen from a plane

The eclipse of a November 2013 photographed from a plane  by Ben Cooper

The eclipse of a November 2013 photographed from a plane by Ben Cooper

This was photographed from a plane flying at 13,300 m going 800 km/h, 960 km southeast of Bermuda. In order to get the eclipse to one side of the plane, they flew across the path of totality, rather than along it. This required split-second timing, since the shadow on the moon moves across the Earth’s surface at 12,800 km/h. The photographer, Ben Cooper, isn’t sure whether this is totality or 1 second off. I think it’s 1-second off because you can see the sunlight shining through the valleys on the edge of the moon, creating the famous diamond ring effect. Either way, it’s a wonderful photo. More information at Launch Photography.

Solar Eclipse Nov 3rd UPDATE

Map of the track of the Nov 3rd eclipse. Official work for NASA

Map of the track of the Nov 3rd eclipse. Official work for NASA

Partial solar eclipse observation with Astrotour

Partial solar eclipse observation with Astrotour

UPDATE: There are two places where you’ll be able to observe the eclipse safely. Astrolapalma will hold a free event at Llano de las Brujas from 10:30-1:30 pm, and Astrotour will hold an event costing 2€ per person at the ecological banana plantation EcoFinca Platanologico from 11 am – 1 pm.

Do NOT look directly at the sun. You might go blind.
On November 3rd 2013 there will be a hybrid solar eclipse. “Hybrid” means that in some places it will be a total eclipse and in other it will be an annual eclipse – that is, the moon will be directly in front of the sun, but it will be slightly farther away than usual, so that it appears slightly smaller than usual – too small to cover the sun completely. In any case, from the Canary Islands the moon will cover just 40% of the sun. From here, the maximum eclipse will be at 12:15 pm. From the UK and Germany, the moon will be next to the sun in the sky, but not cover it. From mainland Spain, the eclipse will cover 10-20% of the sun, reaching its maximum at about 12:30 pm.

The next solar eclipse will be an annual eclipse in Antarctica on 29th April, 2014. I don’t think I’ll be going all the way to Antarctica myself.

Partial solar eclipse observation with Astrolapalma

Partial solar eclipse observation with Astrolapalma

Visiting the Observatory

For years, the IAC (Canarian Astrophysics Institute) has paid the cost of visits to the observatory. Now they need to be even more careful with their money, and visitors will have to pay 9€ each (6.75€ for residents of La Palma), which should cover the cost of the guide and administrative overhead. The visits are still daytime only, and last 45-90 minutes. This includes a short talk on why the observatory is on La Palma, a visit to the MAGIC telescope, and for over-12s, a visit to the inside of one of the other telescope. This is most often GTC,the biggest telescope in the world, but it may also be the WHT, INT, or TNG.

You can book your visit here

A free talk on astrophotography in Santa Cruz

Poster for the astrophotography talk in Santa Cruz on Wednesday night

Poster for the astrophotography talk in Santa Cruz on Wednesday night. Click on the image for a larger version.

On Wednesday night in Santa Cruz there will be a talk on astrophotography by Babak Tafreshi and Christoph Malin (two of the most prestigious astrophotographers in the world). They’re on La Palma to teach at Astromaster LA PALMA 2013, an advanced course on image processing and landscape photography timelapse and night which will be held in Los Cancajos this week, between July 26 and September 30.
The talk will take place next Wednesday 25th at 20:00 pm in the Noble Hall of the Casa Salazar, in O’Daly, 20, of Santa Cruz de La Palma.
More information about the event:

Equinox sunrise behind the Roque

Sunrise behind the Roque de Los Muchachos at the equinox. GTC on the left and TNG on the right.

Sunrise behind the Roque de Los Muchachos at the equinox

A remarkable number of the archeological sites on La Palma line up with astronomical calendar events: particularly sunrise or sunset at the solstice or equinox, and the rising and setting of the star Canopus. Since Sunday was the equinox, I went with a group of friends to one of these sites to see the sun rise behind the highest point of the island, the Roque de Los Muchachos. It meant an early start, but it was well worth it.

Autumn equinox

Come to San Antonio volcano visitor centre and see La Palma’s “Stonehenge” mark the autumn equinox on Sunday night at 7:30 pm.

Stonehenge is a bit of an overstatement, of course, but the modern astronomical marker at the visitor centre works the same way as Stonehenge. As the sun sets at the equinox, the shadow of one stone reaches another. (Different stones make shadows which reach the marker stone at the summer and winter solstice.)

Starting at 7:30 there will be a explanations by Antonio González and Miguel Martín.

I hope that wasn’t my prince

An unlucky frog caught in a NASA launch on September 6, 2013. Credit NASA/Wallops/Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport

An unlucky frog caught in a NASA launch on September 6, 2013. Credit NASA/Wallops/Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport


Yes, that’s a real frog, and a real NASA launch, and no, the photo wasn’t retouched.

This is NASA’s LADEE heading to the moon “to gather detailed information about the lunar atmosphere, conditions near the surface and environmental influences on lunar dust.” The automatic cameras caught this image at the launch Pad 0B at Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia.” For real.

So what’s with the frog?

Well, the launch pad gets deluged with water on take off, to protect it, and there’s a big pool of water to do that. It’s also in the middle of a wildlife refuge, since rocket launches aren’t very frequent. So the poor frog presumably found a spot that was comfortable and damp – at the time.

Actually, I think the frog must have been much closer to the camera than the rocket, perhaps just 7 m up.

As NASA says, “The condition of the frog, however, is uncertain.”

Mars’s moons

Mars has two moons, Demios is very small – only about 12 km in diameter, and orbits in 30 hours. But since a Martian day is 24 hours, 39 minutes long, Demios isn’t much above synchronous orbit, and it takes 2.7 days to rise in the east and set in the west. From the equator of Mars, it looks about as big as the planet Venus does from Earth.

Phobos isn’t much bigger at about 22 km in diameter. But the fun part is that it has a very close orbit – just 6,400 km above the Martian equator, so close that from the north or south poles it’s below the horizon, and where you can see it, it looks noticeably bigger overhead than down at the horizon. At its biggest, it looks about one third as big as the Earth’s full moon from Earth. Here’s the fun part – Phobos orbits Mars in 7 hours and 40 minutes, while the Martian day is 24 hours, 39 minutes. So the surface of Mars moves faster than Phobos, and Phobos appears to rise in the west, grow as it climbs to the zenith, then shrink and set in the east.

Both moons are chocolate coloured, and probably captured asteroids.

This video was taken by NASA’s Curiosity rover, from Gale Crater on August 1st.

La Palma’s sky – timelapse by Daniel López