Calar Alto faces the COVID-19 crisis

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To cope with the COVID-19 pandemic, the largest observatory on the European mainland has taken protective and restrictive actions for its staff and visitors, adapting its working model in a responsible way. The Calar Alto team is working mostly remotely to be ready to resume its usual operations once the current preventive measures will not be needed anymore.

During the March 9th week, every visiting astronomer was warned that, to reduce the danger of getting contaminated during the trip to Calar Alto, her/his observing run will be changed to service mode, that is, it will be performed by the team of Calar Alto professional observers.

On March 12th and 13th, due to the pandemic, the first virtual workshop of our history was celebrated from the Institute of Astrophysics of Andalusia (IAA-CSIC) in Granada, being held by videoconference for all but a few of the participants. The “Legacy and new instrumentation for the Calar Alto Observatory” workshop organized by CAHA, IAA and the Spanish Infrastructure Network for Astronomy (RIA) was held successfully and will help us to identify the new instrumental needs, as well as to define our medium- to long-scale scientific strategy.

Only part of the organizers were attending in person at the IAA main meeting room, but up to 90 persons in total were remotely participating via the live streaming from the IAA YouTube channel and a videoconference system for the speakers. Any participant could ask questions via chat; this has allowed us to maintain living exchanges and interactivity, like in a face-to-face meeting. Without risking the health of registered persons, in addition to reducing costs (and carbon dioxide emissions) of the trip to Granada – researchers from Spain, Germany, China, USA, Mexico, … were expected.

“This workshop remotely held and well organized may be an example to follow to reduce our carbon footprint in future conferences” pointed out Jorge Lillo, a researcher from the Center of Astrobiology (CAB-INTA/CSIC) in Madrid, directly concerned by the already applied mobility restrictions. All talks (23 in total) can be watched from these links (parts 1, 2 and 3), and the detailed program including the .pdf of each presentation is available from this other link.

On the night of March 15-16, in the early morning, the CAHA staff took the last observations in service mode, before the temporary closure of the domes of the 2.2- and 3.5-m telescopes, the latter being the largest one in the Iberian Peninsula. The Schmidt and 1.23-m telescopes could be used remotely during the following 12 nights, being less complex systems and easier to pilot from the distance – by experienced observers from the German (DLR) and European (ESA) spatial agencies.

On Saturday 27th, after the announcement by the government that all non essential activities must cease, we cancelled any observation from the center. Nonetheless, Calar Alto being a Unique Scientific and Technical infrastructure (ICTS from the map of the Spanish Economy and Competitiveness Ministry), we were specifically authorized to maintain on site the minimum staff required for the safety of the critical installations.

This includes keeping cold (about 150ºC below zero for the infrared channel, filling in daily with liquid nitrogen) the CARMENES instrument. An improper heating up of this spectrograph, unique in the world, which has already allowed us to discover two tens of exoplanets, would significantly affect years of hard work, since the currently ongoing survey of exoplanets around red dwarves by the CARMENES consortium (gathering 11 institutes) is close to its end.

To mitigate the side effects of the pandemic for the astronomical community, Calar Alto will do its best to compensate the observing nights lost to the affected groups of researchers, during the next semester of observations.

Likewise, the usual call for (open time) proposals for the second semester of 2020 is delayed until the alarm state is over.

In these difficult moments for many countries and Spain in particular, Calar Alto wanted to show its solidarity with the health personnel and all people affected by this terrible pandemic, by offering its stock of protective masks (800 units) to the Andalusia Health System through the government sub-delegation in Almeria.


Calar Alto Observatory is one of the infrastructures that belong to the national map of Unique Scientific and Technical Infrastructures (Spanish acronym: ICTS), approved on November 6th, 2018, by the Science, Technology and Innovation Policy Council

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