One of the advantages of Algarve living is not just the bright and deep blue sky that we get to enjoy for over 300 days a year, but after our nearest and dearest star dips down over the horizon, the lack of clouds and light pollution means that (at least on nights when the moon doesn’t steal the show) all the other stars in the sky can shine bright and unobstructed and this creates the ideal conditions for marvelling at (and studying) the cosmos.
This is what first drew English couple Bev and Jan Ewan-Smith here back in the 1980’s and drove them to found the COAA (Centro de Observação Astronómica no Algarve) in 1987. The centre is located near Portimão and having been here for so long it’s a very well known astronomy holiday centre. However, since we at The Portugal News are on a mission to bring you star-related content for this, our Star Section, I thought I would go and try to discover them for myself. Satellites beamed down my location to Google Maps and I eventually found myself outside this cute Portuguese house. I wondered if maybe I’d escaped Google’s orbit, but then I saw the tents that hide the telescopes in the garden.
Bev and his dogs came out to greet me and I caught a quick snapshot of him with their cat sitting lazily on the wall behind him. He joked that this is something that would amuse Jan, as he and the cats have, shall we say, an ambivalent relationship towards each other. As we walked down to look at the telescopes in the garden, I quizzed Bev about his life and whether he has always been an astronomer? He told me no, and that he was actually a geophysicist (a more ‘down to earth’ profession) and worked with electronics at Cambridge. However, he had always enjoyed astronomy and when he and Jan decided to move to Portugal and saw how the mostly unclouded skies here provide such a clear window to the heavens, the decision to start the astronomy centre just seemed like it was, well... ‘written in the stars’.
Through the years Bev and Jan have run this astronomy holiday centre and their regular ‘astroguests’ (as they call them) have been able to come and stay with them and enjoy a lovely holiday in the sunshine during the day, and at night, have access to their super ‘Newtonian’ telescopes to explore the solar system with. Of course, over the years there’s been lots of development in the Algarve, but so far they’ve managed to stay nicely hidden away and with minimal light pollution they can still boast a spectacular unimpeded view of the night sky.
Unfortunately, since the pandemic started they haven’t been able to have any astroguests and the largest of their telescopes has been decommissioned for the time being, and so, unfortunately, I couldn’t see it. But Bev told me that telescopes shouldn’t really be uncovered in the daytime anyway, however, he did give me a quick sneak peek of a smaller one that is still in action. He also started to tell me how one of their regular users Pam Foster from Pitlochry, in Scotland, had used it to take a few amazing pictures of the ‘Wild Duck’ cluster just the other night. “Wait… what?” I said. “She’s in Scotland and you are closed? How on earth did she manage that?” Well, through the magic of technology, of course.
This ‘Remote Observing Service’ has been their bread and butter since the pandemic began. Bev recalled how slow the internet was when they first started and how even sending one picture to Cambridge could take what seemed like light-years. Now though, astronomers can log on, and along with Bevs ‘on the ground’ assistance, take control of the telescope - studying and even taking pictures of galaxies, constellations, comets, nebulae, planets and even Pluto from whatever overcast area of the world they happen to be in.
Bev left it until nearly the end of my visit to let me in on the centre’s most major astronomical discovery. Back in 1997, they discovered an asteroid. Apparently, it was sneaking west in the Sagittarius, close to the Ecliptic but it was moving relatively slowly at the end of its retrograde loop - and so, it wasn’t quite stealthy enough to escape the keen eyes of Bev and a volunteer astronomy student called Chris Durman, who spotted it for the requisite two nights in a row. The asteroid is called the 8225 Emerson (in honour of one of Chris Durman’s university teachers, David Emerson, who sadly passed away at the time of the discovery). As far as Bev knows, this is the only asteroid to be discovered from Portugal, and also, the only one he reckons is likely to be. You see, computers are once again changing the game and nowadays take control of super telescopes and are constantly scanning the skyline - and there’s not much chance they will miss anything.
If you want to hear more about COAA and see more incredible pictures of the wonders of the universe taken from right here in Portugal, then you can follow them on Twitter at this link:
https://twitter.com/COAA_Astronomy or check out their website https://www.coaa.co.uk/ and sign up for their newsletter.