Amazing STARMUS Experience

July 26th, 2011

It was very hard to believe but I won a trip to the STARMUS festival and spent an incredible week on Canary Islands in June 2011.

In May a panel of judges chose my ‘Ocean Sky’ time-lapse video as  the overall winner of STARMUS astro-photography contest. On top of that I was awarded one hour of observations with Gran Telescopio Canarias (GranTeCan), the largest optical telescope in the world at the Roque de los Muchachos Observatory on the Island of La Palma.

The winning video (full sceen viewing is reomeended)

STARMUS Festival

After 36-hour flight I landed safely on Tenerife Island and checked in to a very nice hotel right on the beach. The festival was to start next day and I had some time to recover from the flight.

Kathryn Gray, the youngest ever supernova discoverer opened the festival and was followed by Dr. Robert Williams, the president of IAU presenting the “Five Key Astronomical Discoveries of the Past 50 Years”.

Picture: Right to left: Francisco Sánchez (IAC), Garik Israelian (IAC), Robert Williams (IAU), Juan Ruiz (ACIISI), Buzz Aldrin, Alexei Leonov

Then Buzz Aldrin shared his Apollo 11 experience, Jill Tarter presented “Intelligent Life in the Universe”,  astronaut astronaut and astrophysicist Claude Nicollier described his “Visits to Hubble”, Michel Mayor talked about his excellent research on Extra-Solar planets and Leslie Sage from Nature talked about “How Astronomy Has Changed What it Means to be Human”.

The following four days were as impressive and informative. The speakers included two Nobel laureates -cosmologist George Smoot and biologist Jack Szostak – talking about the ‘Signals from the Beginning of the Universe’ and ‘The Origin of Life on Earth’, black hole guru Kip Thorne and biologist Richard Dawkins. Apollo mission astronauts Neil Armstrong, Bill Anders, Jim Lovell, Charlie Duke and Russian cosmonauts Alexei Leonov and Yuri Baturin shared their experience in space. Brian May the guitarist of Queen and astrophysicist presented a moving talk about risks of bad human behaviour taken to beyond Earth. All astronauts, cosmonauts and scientists were very open to public at lunch breaks and dinners.

On Wednesday night when I turned 36, invited guests including Neil Armstrong, sang Happy Birthday at the gala dinner – it was a moment to remember.

Australian pioneer astro-photographer David Malin hosted a star party on Mt Teide, 2200 metres above sea level. Although there was some dust from Sahara desert in the atmosphere, the views were great nonetheless.

On Thursday morning we had a tour at Mt. Teide Observatory, which was my first visit to a professional optical observatory and it was excellent. We saw a few professional telescopes including 80cm telescope, 1.52m Telescopio Carlos Sanchez and THEMIS – a very impressive French Solar observatory.

THEMIS Solar Observatory. Mt Teide, Tenerife
Picture: THEMIS Solar Observatory Mt Teide, Tenerife 

La Palma Observatory and the date with GranTeCan

On Sunday I flew to Roque de los Muchachos Observatory on La Palma Island for the observation night at the GranTeCan.

10.4m Gran Telescopio Canarias, La Palma
Picture: Gran Telescopio Canarias, La Palma
Zodiacal Light at GranTeCan
Picture: Zodiacal Light at Gran Telescopio Canarias, La Palma
GranTeCan under the Milky Way Panorama
Picture: Panorama of Moonlit Gran Telescopio Canarias under the Milky Way, La Palma

It was most unforgettable experience. Situated on the volcanic peak 2,267 metres and above clouds, the chances of good weather at night were rather good and Weather Gods did not disappoint. I arrived at the telescope in the evening with the astronomer on duty and we started preparing the observation plan. After long consideration back home, I chose Arp84 for the observation mainly because it is a nice pair of interacting galaxies that fits into the field of view of the imaging instrument on GranTeCan and I could not find a detailed colour image of this object. When the twilight ended the telescope was pointed at the pair of galaxies NGC5394 and NGC5395  and we took a first few shots to position the object in the 7.8’ field of view. Then the imaging sequence with green, red, infrared, H-alpha and SIII filters was executed flawlessly (thanks, Riccardo!)

The atmosphere was rather stable and seeing varied in 0.8-1 arc-seconds (which is very good).  The image turned out great and Noel Carboni, whom I met for the first time at STARMUS kindly offered his experience and  helped to produce this colour image from the individual channels.

Imaging Arp84 in GranTeCan control room
Picture: Imaging Arp84 in GranTeCan control room, La Palma
Arp 84 taken with 10.4m GranTeCan. Colour image processing by Noel Carboni
Picture: ARP 84 taken at GTC  (colour data processing by Noel Carboni)

The next day I had a tour of the observatory visiting the MAGIC, a pair of 17m  Gamma Ray photon detector dishes, Swedish Solar Observatory and 2.54m Isaac Newton Telescope.

MAGIC Telescopes
Picture: MAGIC, Major Atmospheric Gamma-ray Imaging Cherenkov Telescopes
Picture: Night MAGIC
MAGIC Star Trails
Picture: MAGIC Star Trails

Outer Space Time Lapse  (full sceen viewing is reomeended)

I got to spend two nights at the observatory and used the opportunity to make this time-lapse video with Gran Telescopio Canarias featured in the first half and MAGIC Telescopes in the second. There is a very effective sky protection law on the Island of La Palma and the sky looked magnificent without the dreaded light pollution seen elsewhere.

Virtual Tours

And of course I could not resist making 360-degree virtual tours:





If you click on the Virtual Tour thumbnails at the left you should be able to pan and zoom using the buttons at the bottom of the image or just click and drag it with the mouse to pan and use Shift/Ctrl keys to zoom in and out. Adobe Flash player is required.

It was a truly great event where I met new friends and got to talk to some very interesting people. Getting over STARMUS withdrawal symptoms is no easy task!


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18 Comments for this entry

  1. Gordon Dewey:

    Alex: I was at Starmus, as well, and was very facinated with your award winning time lapse video entry. Congratulations! All awards well deserved. Not only the trip to Tenerife, but the stay at the Abama? Nice!
    Again, great job.
    I have only a Meade LX90 8″, but would love to get into the photography part, like you. You were an inspiration.
    I too, did the Teide tour, and was amazed at the weight of the 1.5M Carlos Sanchez Telescope: 60 Tons! Wow!
    I was the one from the U.S., that brought Commander Frank Borman, by proxy, and had earlier submitted a 49 minute interview I did three weeks before Starmus, and sent to Garik Israelian. I am good friends with COl. Borman, and work on his airplane, a turboprop Saai Marchetti. We got our two minutes of fame, during the finale video at the Magma Venue.
    Take care, and again, awesome job!

    • terrastro:

      Thanks, Gordon!

      Please drop me a line if you are ever planning to get to our neck of the woods.


  2. John Sarkissian:

    Hi Alex,

    Great work, mate. I loved your video and your photographs from the Canaries (especially the magic star trails).

    There certainly was a great lineup of guest speakers. The astronaut/cosmonaut line up was especially impressive. Garik did a great job convincing them to attend.

    Well done, again.

    • terrastro:

      Thanks John. Maybe one day we have something similar over here in Australia.

  3. Laura:

    Hi Alex; someone sent me the link to the article in the Daily Mail that has your pictures. Your work is phenomenal. Some of the most breathtaking photography I have ever seen. Well done.

  4. matt stahmer:

    Hello Alex and congratulations on your win. It looks like a lot of time has gone into your creations.

    I have a couple of questions i was hoping you can help me with. I do a lot of time lapse photography of the ocean and i have been experimenting with the stars. I cannot seem to get any clarity in my star trail photos and yours are amazingly clear. Do you somehow incorporate the telescope into your photos to get the clarity? If so you must be able to get it to wide angle and shot your Nikon through it. Sorry i am new to the world of astronomy and really want to capture the sky like you have.

    Anyway just looking for a little advice on how to capture images like your inspirational videos. Nay advice would be greatly appreciated.


    • terrastro:

      Thanks Matt.

      You need as wide angle as possible and telescopes start at 600mm so they won’t work for astro-landscapes. What you need is a lens in 14-24 mm range and take 30 second exposures with wide open aperture and minimal interval (no more than a second) at high ISO. Then stack those in Startrails ( software.

      For the videos use the same frames as in the star trails and import them into your video editor.


      • matt stahmer:

        Thanks for your reply and advice Alex. I am going to give it a shot and see how it turns out using Startrails. I still cant believe how clear the night sky looks and the depth into the milky way and space that you get in your photos. I will do what you recommend and see what i get.

        I have been using Quicktime to start making time lapse movies in the last couple of months. It is a lo of fun and very rewarding but i am very interested to try this new software. It is a spectacular night tonight, 16 degrees forecast over night, so i think i might try a sequence tonight.

        Alex i notice a lot of your shots are in Victoria and particularly on the Mornington Peninsula. I live in St.Andrews Beach and have been taking many shots along the Nepean Coast. I don’t know if you know this area well but there is some incredible coastline down here. If you are ever interested in a bit of company one night when you are taking photos i would be more than happy to come and take you into a few of my favorite areas.

        Now before start thinking ‘crazy stalker guy move away’, i am just interested in photography and i spend a lot of time on our back beaches taking time lapse photos. So with that simple interest that we have in common, if you are keen let me know and i will give you my mobile no.



  5. Whit Traylor:

    I love the videos but how can I keep it from stopping and starting. Is there a video download compatible with your presentation?

    • terrastro:

      It may stutter on the first playback but the second time should be smooth

  6. Pítr:

    Hi Alex,

    your photos and videos are amazing, great work.
    Good luck to the future.

  7. 360 tours manchester:

    Absolutely love your 360 tours and please produce alot more!

  8. renate volkmann:

    Hi -Alex,
    I just enjoyed the phantastic results of your recent trip to Teneriffa, it is like I travelled in space. Wonderful.
    Congratulations! And greetings

  9. Tom:

    Congratulations Alex. A well deserved win!

  10. Ksutw:

    Greetings from Siberia:)
    Thank you for your photo and video materials. They allow us to expand our consciousness, to find peace and a lot of philosophizing. You – opening for me:)

    • terrastro:


  11. Terrence N B Scott:

    A huge thanx for the mindblowing images that linger and evolve-my son and i enjoyed watching the fruits of your beautyful work

  12. kasskett:

    W>ow !!

    Cela nous remet à notre (toute petite) place, quelque part dans l’Univers.

    C’est FANTASTIQUE !!

    Mais : que les musiques sont mauvaises, ringardres, gnangnan… De grâce, Vous devriez essayer, Harold Budd ou Brian Eno, Ou Steve reich, ou Claude Debussy. Les images sont merveilleuses et vos bandes sont cassent tout…. Dommage

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