Clear night skies and lack of pollution aren’t the only things that make Mallorca a wonderful place for professional and hobby astronomers. Read how the Mallorca Planetarium can help you – and scientists – discover what’s out there in the universe.
Many visitors aren’t aware that the island has an important astronomical observatory, of which the Mallorca Planetarium is a part.
The Observatorio Astronómico de Mallorca premises have a definite space-age look to them, in complete contrast to the sleepy neighbouring village of Costitx, but this rural location benefits from clear night skies.
Every Friday and Saturday at 19:00h, the Planetarium projects the spectacular multilingual audio visual programme, ‘Evolution’, onto the domed ceiling. Afterwards you can enjoy guided sessions in the observation pods.
From mid-July through August, it’s high season for stargazers. The Spaniards call it “Lágrimas de San Lorenzo” – the “tears of St. Lawrence”: hundreds of falling stars shoot across the sky every night. According to the legend, about 1,750 years ago Lawrence was treasurer of the Catholic Church in Rome. When Emperor Valerian, who persecuted Christians, eventually asked him to release the church treasures, Lawrence distributed all the gold among the poor of the city. As punishment, he was tortured to death on a hot iron grid. And it’s said that the annual midsummer shooting stars represent the tears he shed.
Salvador Sánchez, Director of the Mallorcan observatory in Costitx can only laugh about this Catholic science-fiction story. For him, the holy tears are nothing more than cosmic dirt from the tail of a comet, racing through our solar system tens of millions of years ago. Caught by the gravitational forces of the planets, the comet dust keeps flying in its own orbit around the sun. “The Earth crosses this meteorite belt once a year. Dust particles with the size of peas or tennis balls burn up in the atmosphere, which causes an effect, that looks like shooting stars falling from the sky,” Sánchez remarks.
He is enchanted by the stars. And there was no doubt that Sánchez – son of Andalusian emigrants who moved to Mallorca due to the Spanish Civil War in the 1940s – would make this fascination his job. “Astronomy is like music. You simply know that you are called to it”.
At the age of 15, Sánchez and a few friends started Mallorca´s first Astro Club in Inca. “It was at the end of the 1960s. The Americans had just landed on the moon, the world was in a cosmic gold rush. We were swept up in it.” At that time the club decided to build an observatory in Mallorca. The original was placed on the roof of a village house in Sencelles in the mid-1970s. Despite the then rudimentary technology, Sánchez´ Astro-Force soon became well-known: The telescope in Sencelles leapfrogged all other observatories in Europe and was the first to discover the comet Halley, which returned into our solar system in 1986.
Buoyed by this stunning success, the amateur star hunters presented a project to build a large observatory with attached planetarium to the Balearic government and Mallorca Island Council in the late 1980s. The plan surprisingly found agreement among the politicians. The only question was where to put it. Sánchez: “Of course, the best place for an astronomical observatory is a mountain.” However, Mallorca’s Tramuntana mountains had to be excluded as a site for two reasons: Firstly, the difficult driving routes for construction and subsequent work at the observatory; second, the rising moist air from the nearby Mediterranean, which would obstruct views of space through the telescope. After months of searching, the astro-geeks discovered a suitable site in a field near Costitx. Sánchez’s dream of a big observatory came true.
“The money for the construction of the observatory came from public institutions,” recalls Sánchez. His friends realized the purchase of telescopes, high-resolution cameras and computers – in large part with their own funds. “We had the first observatory in Europe, which had already begun to use digital cameras in the late ’80s,” Sánchez proudly explains. Innovative technology and an ever-increasing number of contacts with large specialist astro-physics departments at universities in Germany, Britain and the United States, led to the Mallorca Observatory blossoming in just a few years into an international reference in the discovery and observation of near-Earth asteroids. Sánchez and his team are now an important component of a world-spanning network of observatories, which have specialized in tracking down boulders rattling through space. “We don’t spend the whole day with the eye in front of the lens. This task is carried out 24 hours a day by a robot telescope, programmed by us to scan space for suspicious bullets.”
What happens if an asteroid is discovered to be on a collision course with Earth?
“There are already several years of internationally agreed action plans to prevent collision with a meteor or shooting star, for example, by redirecting it with the use of nuclear weapons and space lasers,” says Sánchez. Time is a key factor in the use of all defensive measures – and of course the size of the threat. “An asteroid with the length of one kilometre could extinguish all life on Earth on impact,” Sánchez tells us. That’s why it is so important to watch out for uninvited guests from space. “It’s just a matter of time before an asteroid falls into our orbit. This last happened 65 million years ago and made the dinosaurs extinct.
Mallorca Observatory is currently co-operating closely with the European Space Agency ESA, which aims to financially support the Mallorcans’ hunt for dangerous asteroids in the future.
Besides the scientific research work, Sánchez is also committed to the popularization of outer space and the stars, through the Planetarium – a dark brown dome, about 11 metres high – which was inaugurated in 2003. Here, in addition to the weekly projections of the night sky and sophisticated space animation, astro workshops are held. The Planetarium also houses one of the largest permanent exhibitions on meteors in Spain.
Does the future of humanity lie in space? “Yes,” Sánchez firmly agrees. But not by sending lots of manned spacecraft into space: “What would we do on the Moon or Mars?” he asks. Robots are the better workers for scanning the solar system on its raw material sources. Minerals for energy generation could be discovered and mined by these robots. Computer controlled cargo space ships could bring it to Earth.
The universe is big, but how many stars are there up in the sky? “With the naked eye, we should recognize about 2,000 on a clear night,” Sánchez estimates. The universe includes a few more. Some 100,000 million stars are put together in one galaxy. 700 million galaxies have been discovered so far. Even for a calculator this is not an easy task. Might there be anything like our blue planet out in space? Sánchez vigorously says not: “The Earth is the most beautiful place in the universe. If we gave the computer the task to design the perfect planet, the result would always be the Earth. “To protect and preserve our planet is perhaps the most important and most difficult task of mankind.”
Stellar show in the Planetarium:
Every Friday and Saturday at 19:00h “Evolución” (duration 1.5 hrs) with spectacular computer animations of space and our solar system.
In addition to Catalan and Spanish there are also projections in English. In summer, numerous lectures, evening workshops and observation meetings for watching the showers of shooting stars known as “Lágrimas de Lorenzo”, are scheduled. Prior appointment recommended.
Camí de l’Observatori, s/n
Tel. +34 971 51 33 44