Visiting the Very Large Telescope in Chile

Posted by David Eicher
on Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Cerro Paranal, home of the four 8.2-meter telescopes comprising the Very Large Telescope, operated by the European Southern Observatory, Chile, May 24, 2014. // David J. Eicher
More than 30 readers of Astronomy magazine are still in the early stages of a spectacular astronomical journey through Chile, and the past two days have flown by like a dream. On Friday, May 23, we left our arrival base in Santiago, the nation’s historic capital, and flew northward to the coastal city of Antofagasta. This area of Chile is the gateway, eastward over the coastal Andes range, to an area with an incredibly rich history in mining and mineralogy, and also the entrance into the Atacama Desert, one of the driest places on our planet. This, with high altitudes and nearly cloud-free year-round weather, makes it the best site for astronomical observing on Earth.

After arriving at our beautiful hotel in Antofagasta, we rested. Then, late Friday afternoon, I delivered a talk to the group, “Comets: Visitors from Deep Space,” based on the book I wrote for Cambridge University Press last year. I had such a fantastic audience. I encouraged an open Q&A session throughout the talk, and instead of the usual 30 or 40 minute talk, the many superb questions pushed the presentation to an hour and a half! We solved nearly all of the problems not only of cometary astronomy, but also of the meaning of the cosmos at large.

Following a wonderful dinner, we called it quits and readied for a big day on Saturday.

Our tour guide, Adriana, and tour leader, Daniel Thorpe of MWT Associates, led us onto a bus Friday morning. We set off on about a 2-hour ride over the coastal range and into the desert, turning south to head to the great observatory in Chile. We arrived at the European Southern Observatory’s site at Cerro Paranal very excited to tour one of the greatest telescopes in existence, the four 8.2-meter scopes that make up the Very Large Telescope, which are commonly interferometrically used as one huge instrument. Despite unusual weather, with intermittent waves of clouds washing over the mountain and obscuring the huge domes, our group trekked upward and entered the 8.2-meter “Antu” telescope, as well as the control rooms and other equipment areas, via a subterranean tunnel. Our group spent more than two hours at the site, absolutely in astronomical heaven, seeing one of history’s greatest telescopes. What a fantastic day it was!

After the bus ride back to Antofagasta, we went our own ways for dinner (and catching up on work) before another big adventure on Sunday that took us deep into the Atacama Desert, to San Pedro de Atacama, toward the spectacular new Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA) radio telescope. We also began some dark-sky observing Sunday night, and was very hard to contain the excitement of a bunch of elated amateur astronomers.

What an incredible place Chile is for astronomy!

For all images from this trip, visit the Online Reader Gallery.
Related blog: Visiting historic Santiago, Chile

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