Chile and it’s Clear Skies

Chilean Skies

The dark Chilean skies provide the best opportunities for astronomy on our planet. Pictures of twinkling stars in glowing gas or spiral galaxies of mesmerizing grandeur are obtained with the world’s largest optical telescopes dotted around the Chilean Atacama desert. The Atacama desert is considered the world’s driest desert, and it is this extremely low humidity which is a key ingredient to secure challenging astronomical observations. Not only is the Chilean Atacama desert known for its natural beauty, but it is acknowledged as the place for world-leading astronomical research of the Universe. As a result, astronomical institutes from both Europe and the USA have performed their research of the Universe’s Southern hemisphere from Chile since the 1960s.

European Southern Observatory

The observatory with currently the largest telescopes in Chile is the one managed by the European Southern Observatory (ESO). It is located at 1.5 hours drive south of the port-town of Antofagasta. About ten kilometers from the Pacific coast and on the desolate “Paranal” mountain at a height of 2700m, ESO built and now manages the world’s most advanced observatory: the VLT. Today, the Paranal observatory comprises, amongst others, the 4 telescopes with mirrors of 8.2m diameter. The salient feature of these four telescopes is that they can operate in close-harmony delivering the equivalent of a single telescope with a mirror-diameter of 120 meters. The VLT is able to distinguish the separate headlights of a car on the moon (if there was one). The VLT can detect astronomical objects that are four billion (four thousand million) times fainter than what can be seen with the unaided eye. These properties are required for a telescope to unlock the mysteries of the cosmos, ranging from the formation of planets and stars, the evolution of black holes, to the accelerating expansion of the universe.

Astronomical Research in Chile

The future of astronomical research in Chile looks bright, as astronomers around the world partake in the construction of ever bigger and better telescopes in the most suited place on earth. Not only does Chile provide the best conditions for observations of large mirror telescopes like the VLT, but the meteorological conditions are also beneficent for observations of radio waves from space. (Radio waves are basically the same as that of light, except that the wavelength is much larger. Radio waves range from millimeter to meter lengths, where light is less than a micrometer.) Detection of radio waves emanating from space requires a different detection technique than the detection of light; basically one needs an extremely sensitive antenna instead of a large mirror. The next chapter in the astronomy story of Chile constitutes the construction of the largest radio wave observatory, built by the global ALMA collaboration. This construction is currently happening in the Atacama Altiplano at 5000m height outside the well-known town of San Pedro de Atacama. The ALMA observatory was scheduled to be completed in 2015.

Visiting Observatories

The astronomical observatories in Chile are open to the public on specific dates. People are led around the observatory, are shown the telescopes and are given background information on the research undertaken and the technological challenges they constitute. The ever advancing technological developments allow mankind to understand better the mysteries of the Universe by means of the increasingly sophisticated observing tools provided by ESO and the other observatories. The Chilean Atacama desert provides the best natural conditions for pursuing these goals.

Special thanks to Willem-Jan de Wit, an astronomer at ESO, for writing this article.

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