The Atacama Desert and the greatest observing night of our lives

Posted by David Eicher
on Tuesday, May 27, 2014

The Atacama Desert in Chile is the greatest place for astronomical observing on Earth // ESO/S. Guisard, (www.eso.org/~sguisard)
On Sunday, May 25, our Chilean trip with more than 30 readers of Astronomy magazine continued. We started off from our base in Antofagasta, Chile, and journeyed on a long bus ride into the Atacama Desert, typically the driest desert on Earth and the best place on our planet for astronomical observing. As we set off, we heard about what was for this region a major snowstorm to our east the day before, which dropped some 5 inches (8 centimeters) of white powder. By some accounts, it was the biggest snowfall in the region in 45 years, and it came very early in what is autumn in the Southern Hemisphere.

We trekked on, fortified by dreams of great southern deep-sky objects. I gave the group about an hour-long talk on the bus as an overview of probably more than they wanted to know about the great deep-sky objects of the southern sky — the Magellanic Clouds, 47 Tucanae, Omega Centauri, Alpha and Proxima Centauri, the Carina Nebula, the Southern Cross, the Coalsack, the Jewel Box Cluster, and many more. They were stoked to observe all of these incredible treats of the south that we never get to see in the Northern Hemisphere!

We made our way slowly across the desert and stopped at an old and abandoned mining town, Pampa Union, which had been a center of nitrate mining between the 1920s and 1940s. The spooky visit to the community’s graveyard was unbelievable — I will simply leave it at that. We carried on northeastward toward the town that is the center of the observing region of the Atacama, San Pedro de Atacama, a city of just under 4,000 people. Once we pulled into town, we visited a small private meteorite museum and then headed to check into our hotel.

This is where bad luck struck on the trip. The highly unusual snowfall and cold temperatures — down to 32° Fahrenheit during Sunday night — caused pipes to break and heat pumps to malfunction at our hotel, the nicest in town. Sunday night would be spend sleeping in full regalia and coats, and we were very thankful for a warm shower in the morning before heading out again. Let me tell you, it was not comfortable, and we are hoping for better on the second night in this town.

The brewing calamity at the hotel could not dampen our spirits for what was to come Sunday night, however — the greatest night of observing the sky any of us had ever seen. We visited a wonderful guy and professional astronomer, Alain Maury, who hosts SPACE, a private observatory complex just outside San Pedro, that hosts a battery of two dozen telescopes, some as large as 25 inches (64 cm) in aperture.

Alain had every telescope trained on a different object. He gave us a breathtaking, beautiful, and funny tour of the naked-eye Southern Hemisphere sky and highlighted all manner of funny southern constellations as well as eye-popping treats — like the closest star Alpha Centauri, the Magellanic Clouds, the center of the Milky Way Galaxy in Sagittarius and Scorpius straight overhead, and much more — before leading us to the scopes.

What can I say about what came next? It really blew all of our minds, even some of us who have been observing nearly all over the world for nearly 40 years. It was stunning. We saw Omega Centauri, cleanly resolved into thousands of stars right across the cluster’s face. We saw a mesmerizingly detailed Carina Nebula, including a great view of the Homunculus Nebula surrounding Eta Carina. We had a spectacular view of a spider-like array of detail in the Tarantula Nebula in the Large Magellanic Cloud, despite being low on the horizon. We also gawked at 47 Tucanae and its spectacularly bright nucleus. And there were many, many objects over several hours — the Lagoon Nebula, M83, M6, M7, the Omega Nebula, the tiny little carbon star in the Southern Cross, huge star clusters IC 2602 and NGC 2516, the Jewel Box, Centaurus A, on and on and on and on.

What an amazing night!

It really was one of those moments when you felt your life had changed a little bit. And many thanks to Alain for creating this opportunity for us. Afterward, we drove back to San Pedro de Atacama, very happy and very tired, but ready for another adventure the following day.

For all images from this trip, visit the Online Reader Gallery.

Related blogs:
Visiting historic Santiago, Chile
Visiting the Very Large Telescope in Chile



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