Adventures in the Atacama Desert

Posted by David Eicher
on Monday, June 2, 2014

The southern Milky Way imaged by David J. Eicher with a 24mm lens at f/4.5, Canon 6D camera set at ISO 25600, hand-held and braced, and with an approximately 20-second exposure, from outside San Pedro de Atacama, Chile, May 27, 2014.
The last few days of Astronomy’s 2014 trip to Chile were so busy that I barely had time to keep up with the activities, let alone to write the blog. So here goes: On Tuesday, May 27, our group of more than 30 readers left our hotel very early in San Pedro de Atacama, in the Atacama Desert. The travelers trekked deep into the desert to see one of the planet’s most notable geothermal sites, the Tatio Geysers, or El Tatio, at an elevation of some 12,900 feet in the Andes Mountains. Bubbling mudflats, spectacular jet-like geysers, and strange pools of microbially rich fluids were all reminiscent of a site well-known to our mostly U.S. visitors, Yellowstone National Park.

Later in the afternoon, we traveled another direction to see the Valley of the Moon in the salt flats near San Pedro de Atacama. This beautiful and diverse landscape alternately looks like the surface of the Moon or flowing sand dunes and iron oxide-rich landscapes of Mars. Indeed, some martian rover prototypes were tested here prior to launching toward the Red Planet.

Following sunset at the Valley of the Moon, we had a sensational dinner at a posh restaurant in town (yes! — in the Atacama Desert!), and then many of us piled into a bus and headed outside town to one of the darkest skies we had ever seen. The bus stopped in a deserted area well off the local road, where an old swimming pool and recreation center once thrived, and we set up to simply soak in the night sky. Many observers brought binoculars or simply gazed at the unbelievably bright southern Milky Way with their eyes alone, drinking in the Magellanic Clouds, Omega Centauri, the Carina Nebula, and the center of the galaxy, Sagittarius, nearly due overhead. I took the opportunity to test my camera, a Canon 6D, which I had recently bought, with its 24mm lens. Now, I am not at all an astroimager. From my earliest days in this hobby, publishing Deep Sky Monthly, I was getting the greatest photos being taken sent to me in the mail. So why try to take them myself? But on this night, I was amazed at the camera’s sensitivity — by simply bracing the camera between some rocks on the roof of an abandoned shed, I captured some pretty nice shots of the Milky Way with exposures in the range of 20 seconds.

Thank goodness for great technology! And for the southern Milky Way!

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

Related blogs:
Visiting historic Santiago, Chile
Visiting the Very Large Telescope in Chile
The Atacama Desert and the greatest observing night of our lives
Behind-the-Scenes tour of ALMA, the world's greatest radio telescope

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