Behind-the-scenes at Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory

Posted by David Eicher
on Monday, June 2, 2014

Telescope domes pepper the summit of Cerro Tololo, at an altitude of 7,241 feet, Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory, Cerro Tololo, Chile, May 29, 2014.
From May 21 through May 30, a group of more than 30 Astronomy readers accompanied me and our tour leaders, Daniel and Julie Thorpe of MWT Associates, to the Chilean Atacama Desert. Arguably the best observing location on Earth, the Atacama is host to numerous major observatories, the greatest telescopes and institutions of Southern Hemisphere astronomy. We had a sensational time and covered a vast amount of ground, from Santiago to Antofagasta to the desert locale of San Pedro de Atacama. Our trip finished up with a visit to one of the greatest observatories of the world, the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory (CTIO).

On Wednesday, May 28, we departed our lodgings at San Pedro and left for Calama Airport, flying to La Serena. We checked in and relaxed and then headed out to a magnificent dinner in the nearby city of Vacuna, where we enjoyed a short evening tour of the city. The next morning, our last full day of the trip, we headed out early from La Serena to make the winding journey up the mountain to Cerro Tololo.

Our host for a behind-the-scenes tour of this magnificent place was Kadur Flores-Murillo, and he took exceptional care of us, allowing our big group full access to the observatory domes and instruments at this famous site, located some 7,241 feet above sea level. We had great views of the dominant silvery dome on the mountain, that of the famous 4-meter Victor M. Blanco Telescope, as we approached the site. On climbing our way up, we could look across a huge valley to see Cerro Pachón nearby, supporting the big domes of the Gemini South Telescope and the SOAR Telescope.

At Cerro Tololo, we spent about two hours touring the fabled institution. The Blanco Telescope itself was the greatest instrument in the Southern Hemisphere for a generation, from its first light in 1976 through the mid-1990s, when larger scopes arrived. The Blanco Telescope now hosts the DECam and at present is a dedicated dark energy research telescope. We also spent time looking at the first large telescope of the Southern Hemisphere, which stands adjacent to the 4-meter, the 1.5-meter SMARTS Telescope, constructed in 1968.

What a spectacular visit it was, and what an amazing trip to Chile! It was my first time to the observatories in Chile and also to see the incredibly dark sky from this amazing country. We had such a wonderful time at CTIO seeing the telescopes on Paranal, including the Very Large Telescope, enjoying our special visit at ALMA, the world’s greatest radio telescope, and many more adventures.

What an incredible adventure!

Stay tuned for some interesting results from this trip coming up in Astronomy magazine!

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
Adventures in the Atacama Desert

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