Mexico’s Large Millimeter Telescope Opens for Business – ScienceInsider

 

Mexico’s Large Millimeter Telescope Opens for Business – ScienceInsider.

Perched on the summit of a dormant volcano in the Mexican state of Puebla, the Large Millimeter Telescope (LMT) watches how stars, galaxies, and planets form. The result of a binational collaboration between the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and Mexico’s National Institute of Astrophysics, Optics, and Electronics (INAOE), the LMT saw first light in 2011 and is about to begin its first scientific observation season.ScienceInsider chatted with LMT Director David Hughes about millimeter-wavelength telescopes, Mexico’s growing astronomy community, and his plans for the LMT’s future.

To Mahahual and back

map road trip

Villahermosa, Tabasco

The road trip began with the end of the Annual Mexican conference on Ecology, which was held in Villahermosa in the state of Tabasco. Yes, I know, Tabasco. Nothing to do with the sauce, except that the sauces here are infinitely more delicious. Having been warned by a colleague who was accompanying us that it was a city that lied twice in its name — it was neither a villa nor was it hermosa (beautiful)— I was not expecting much, but I found myself being charmed by it in unexpected ways. A huge sprawling park that was bookended by a series of children’s playgrounds and the other end a bonafide archeological/zoological park with jaguars and macaws, and everything in between, even coatis running about like feral monkeys. A huge crocodile in a pool, though the locals claimed that one has only to wait for the rains for the crocodiles to emerge from the lagoons. D only had  memories of visiting Tabasco as a child and these memories invariably featured mosquitos in a starring role; and she found it was easier to bear this time, even though the heat was especially oppressive after Xalapa. I find that as time goes by, I need to get used to the heat again it’s not an automatic return to comfort. One must earn the comfort by bearing the heat; a non-trivial achievement especially when one has been complaining about the lack of tropical climate in xalapa for the rest of the year. The other unexpectedness of Villahermosa was going to an African Safari style zoo at the outskirts of the city. Called Yumka, the owners had clearly taken a Noah’s Ark approach to zoos, and geographical constraints be damned. And so we found emus living with antelopes; gaur with giraffes, and spider monkeys for some reason on a little island of their own. There were nilgai, wildebeest, antelope, pumas, jaguars, monkeys of all sorts, all hurtling past us as we wended our way around on a ‘train’ pulled by a tractor. At the rest stop, there were peacocks wandering around.

Calakmul

After Villahermosa, we stopped at Calakmul. I have been to archeological sites in Mexico before, but none as dramatic and as interesting to get to as Calakmul. We were camping in the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve, and I assumed that the site was a mere km or so away, as is common in other places; they try to ease the way of the tourist in every way possible. But no, the road into the forest deepened and deepened, till finally I had the sense of being inside a vast and wide sanctuary. We scanned the sidelines for animals, but we were traveling in a caravan of sorts at late morning and only managed brief glimpses of the white tailed deer and the turkey pheasant. We finally arrived at the site, got ready and trudged inwards. It was hot. I always end up at pyramid sites when it’s midday, the most inconvenient time to go. And we turned a corner in the trail, and quite suddenly we were among the ruins. There was some shade in front of the big pyramid, so we rested a bit, and then I went up the pyramid. It was steep, and now I’ve climbed enough to know that one must go diagonal and straight up the large steps. I reached a sort of resting spot and though I was paying attention to the climbing, I could see the horizon opening up through my peripheral vision. I continued till I reached the top, and the entire forest of Calakmul spread out in front of me. But the climb was not over; in a remarkable change from other pyramids there was another structure behind, and so I made my way there and form the top of the second peak, the view was unchecked. You could see mounds popping up through the trees, you could sense that on a clear day one could see, perhaps, as far as Tikal in Guatemala. But the real surprise was behind the pyramid. I had gone to Calakmul completely unprepared: I hadn’t read a shred of information about the site, and so I was taken aback to see another pyramid, still covered with plants right behind this one. It was a stunning sight; almost mythical, a view of the pyramid from above, with trees threatening to envelop it and return the site to anonymity.

El volcan de los Murcielagos

We were told that there was a cave just off the highway near Calakmul where every evening bats leave to forage, and that this cave is called the Volcano of Bats, and that it’s a deeply impressive sight. As chance would have it, we were near the highway at dusk, and drove slowly past a  couple of Bats traffic signs and found a tiny spot to park the cars and follow a trail into the brush. There was another group there, and they had a guide. The guide told us that the bats were a bit late today.

The cave was huge: picture a sinkhole or a cenote without water, or small crater. At the base of the crater, there was a small opening intot he rock. I could hear the chirping of the bats. At around 5:30, as twilight spread its way across, a few bats emerged, and then a few more and then finally the exodus of the bats was in full flow. They emerged from the small opening and spiralled up all the way up clear of the crater and then went their separate ways. Some bats emerged very close to the ground, dodging people and plants as they fled hugging the ground. I’ve never seen bats fly so low. The guide told us that it had been estimated that there were 3 million bats in this cave, with 7 species. It was exhilarating watching the swarm of bats.


El volcan de los murcielagos a video by dinrao on Flickr.

Mahahual

On the way to Mahahual, we stopped at a Pueblo Magico (a tourist friendly designation: magic town) called Bacalar. This town is on the shore of an immense freshwater lagoon. The lagoon is spectacular, the colours of the water a delicate blue green that heralded the beginning of the mexican caribbean. We were at a restaurant that overlooked the lagoon, and the restaurant had kayaks for rent, so I went for a spin in the lagoon, and went up to see some stromatolites. The water was only waist deep, and the sand was never far from the kayak. We rowed around a small island and headed back.

In Mahahual, a small strip of beach, we spent the days next to the sea, with occasional trips to town to eat or just hang about. The coral reefs were just about visible, the breaking of the waves gave them away. It’s the second largest coral reef in the world. But the seascape was wonderful: blue green water, white sand, spectacular moonrises and the warm sun, all combined to create a sense of peace.

On the way back, we drove through the city Ciudad Del Carmen, mostly because the road went along the sea, and there were impressive bridges over lagoons and rivers. We stayed there for a night and returned to Xalapa the next day. All in all, a very successful road trip.
Maha