No, I didn’t eat chili in Chile

Posted by on June 30, 2014 in Astronomical Event, Education, Observatory, Telescope | 0 comments

No, I didn’t eat chili in Chile

At the end of May, took another one of my slightly wacky vacations, this time to Chile and Peru. The first week in Chile was dedicated to visiting various observatories and other astronomy related sites. Due to some of the best seeing in the world along with the dry, stable climate in the Atacama Desert, Chile is gravid with observatories. Collectively these sites form the European Southern Observatory,

Right under the mirror of Antu, meaning "Sun" in the Mapucha language.

Right under the mirror of Antu, meaning “Sun” in the Mapucha language.

Besides visiting all of these places, my main goal was to get spherical panoramas of the various sites for future versions of Distant Suns. I used a Motrr robotic dock for my iPhone and the app that completely automates the process to shoot about 40 different pans. Several members of our group were ready to buy one themselves by trip’s end they were so impressed. It’s a wonderful tool, although took a little time to get the hang of it.

The first stop was at the Paranal facility, located at an altitude of 2600m (8500’). Called the flagship of the ESO, Paranal is host to the VLT, another one of those achingly uncreative names as it stands for “Very Large Telescope.” The VLT is comprised of 4 identical “unit” telescopes with objectives, mirrors, 8.2m (27’) in size. By comparison, the twin Keck telescopes in Hawaii have 10m mirrors. A single one of the VLT scopes can see down to 30th magnitude with only an hour-long exposure.

Even though the desert is one of the driest places in the world, the day we arrived it snowed a little on the peak. The entrance to the grounds was nice and clear, but only a mile or so distant where the scopes were, it was cloudy, freezing and icy. Since we couldn’t see much from the outside our hosts let us actually go inside one of the domes and get up close and personal with one of the instruments. Go here to see a sphere pan inside the dome.

A scant three weeks after we left, ground was broken for Paranal’s newest endeavor, the E-ELT for: European Extremely Large Telescope (I’m not making that up. Ya think they could get corporate sponsorship from Pepsi, or Red Bull). The E-ELT will be the world’s largest scope when done in 2024 with a mirror 39m (127’) across, eclipsing the Thirty Meter Telescope (“TMT”) now under construction in Hawaii.

A mere 4 dishes out of a total of 66. (Image courtesy of ALMA).

A mere 4 dishes out of a total of 66.

One of the two "Lore" transporters used to move the antennas to and from the site.

Our next stop was the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA)-a state of the art installation of 66 massive dish antennas and is called “largest ground-based astronomical project in existence.” Each antenna is some 12 meters (39’) across, and there are 60-bleepin’-6 of those folks! Unfortunately we were not allowed to go the actual installation as it was located some 30km away on the spectacular Chajnator plateau at an altitude of about 5000m (16,000’), making it the highest observatory in the world. We did visit the control center, offices and telescope maintenance facility getting to see just one of the great dishes up close. And in order to move such equipment, a specially made crawler-transporter was created that was parked close by. I wanted to “pop some wheelies” with it, but they said, “uh, no.” Go here for a 360 pano inside the transporter.

The next observatory was not run by ESO, but was a private “amateur” installation near San Pedro, actually run by professional astronomer, Alain Maury. To say that the seeing was “good” does it an injustice. It was phenomenal and the stories you may have heard of seeing shadows cast by the Milky Way are true. Alain and his wife were gracious and wildly funny hosts. The observatory is run both for research, as Alain has discovered two comets and a number of asteroids, and for public outreach.

The observatory has a dozen piers, with half of them occupied that night with instruments up to .72m, (28”) in size. And since the desert is so dry with some places having no known rainfall in 400 years, the scopes stay out in the open.

Dave Eicher, the editor of astronomy magazine was with us, and to hear him shout WOW! Or OMG! as each object popped into view, suggested we really were at someplace special. Dave would later describe this evening as a “life changing moment,” and perhaps the finest night of viewing he had ever had. This coming from a guy with over 40 years in the biz. Over the span of 4 hours, Alain would show us sights as diverse as the Lagoon Nebula, and 47 Tucanae, which started looking like the photos. And of course, the hot chocolate his wife served us made it even all the more special. I would like to come back for a week of nothing but observing at Alain’s.

Our final spacey stop was to the Cerro Tololo observatory perched on top of a narrow peak at 2200m, a mere 7,000’. Part of the National Optical Astronomy Observatory, Cerro Tololo counts as her sibling, Kitt Peak National Observatory and is operated by the same group which handles the Space Telescope Science Institute. The largest instrument is the 4.1m (13.3’), followed by the Blanco 4m instrument, which we were lucky enough to see from the inside. 

Sunrise over the geysers, elevation over 14,000 ft.

Aside from visiting the observatories we also took numerous jaunts to see salt flats, a ghost town (which was simultaneously creepy and beautiful), and the El Tatio geysers, world’s highest, at sunrise. For the latter, we had to get up at 4AM, drive up to elevation 4400m (over 14,200’), and stand out in the well-below-freezing cold. But it was worth it! Containing an estimated 10% of the worlds known geysers, El Tatio was a perfect, yet chilling way to greet the new day. However, once the sun rise, the temperature zoomed from -9C on up to a balmy 10C or so (15 to 50 degrees F). and was much more comfortable for are picnic breakfast.


Perhaps the most charming site visited was that of the Museo dle Meteorito, Museum of Meteorites, in the town San Pedro.

Private meteorite museum in San Pedro, Chile.

Private meteorite museum in San Pedro, Chile.

I wondered, just what the &#(@ is a meteorite museum doing out here? As we would learn when speaking with the owner, it is privately run for the purpose of sharing a small portion of his extensive collection of meteorites, 3,000 string, and all collected entirely by marine biologist Rodrigo Martinez. Looking like an igloo, Rodrigo has outfitted it with a lovely and professional looking set of displays including professionally produced videos specifically for his visitors. He is known to have meteorite expeditions up to a month in length in the Atacama, one of the best places in the world for meteorite collectors. (Check out the episode of Meteorite Men that takes place in Atacama). And like someone with a secret “fishing hole,” Rodrigo has various strewn fields that he keeps secret.

Machu Picchu, Peru

These trips are exhausting, but wonderful. Most of their tours have optional extensions and in this case, there were an extra 6 days in Peru to visit the Incan ruins at Machu Picchu and in the Sacred Valley. Strangely enough there was also an astronomical bent here as well. Just across the way from our hotel was the location of an Incan temple to the Sun god. It faced a sharp peak a mile away that was apparently used as a giant calendar based on where the sun rose in relationship to the various points on the peak, visible in this panorama.

If you’re wondering where to go for your next vacation, consider one of the many astronomy tours offered by several different tour companies. And you’ll be hooked. I recommend Melitatrips, as I’ve never been disappointed with their offerings. Only exhausted. And Melita Thorpe who plans and runs most of the tours is an absolute delight. (Plus she’s local, so if you have an “issue,” I know where she lives.)