I have always been interested in the stars. As a Girl Guide I took at course at the Planetarium in Edmonton in order to earn a badge. I have always enjoyed looking for my favorite constellations in the sky and Orion has been a life-long favorite. When we were in Victoria last summer, Adia invited a friend over for dinner and we learned that Kim is an astrophysicist. We had a great discussion that evening about galaxies, and her field of research. Most of it went way over my head, but Anil had a much better understanding of what she was talking about.
We wrote to Adia that we would be attempting to visit at least one of the observatories in Chile while we were travelling north from Santiago. She forwarded our note on to Kim who wrote back with the following information:
2009 is IYA - the International Year of Astronomy. In Canada, they are trying to get people to log "Galileo Moments" on a website - that is, where you have your first look through a telescope (be in a 10-meter class or a 10-mm class scope). Here's the website for your dad - you too - http://www.astronomy2009.ca. I spent ten years of my career teaching three times more than I do now, running an outreach program, and doing it without support, so I feel I've done my turn at this sort of stuff and am stepping back to let the others run with it. I've observed both at Paranal and Tololo (and La Silla and La Serena, the other major observatories up there). Paranal is home to the VLT (very large telescope), my workhorse - nearly all of my best work has come off those telescopes - and the scenery is unreal.
They shot the recent James Bond film there last year - all my friends have photos of themselves with Daniel Craig etc. The residencia is unbelievable - arid dry empty mountaintop, and they built it INTO the mountain. You go down a ramp, open two sets of doors, and you are in a tropical paradise, with a 25-yard three-lane pool, palm trees, and a huge filtered dome for natural light. I love working there. That is also run by ESO - which is the organization that I'm the Vice-Chair on their Observatory Programs Committee - why I go to Germany for a week two times a year (next is May 23-30, but the science headquarters are in Germany, not Chile, so I cannot manage to meet your folks, otherwise I would).
Because of the Bond movie, it is difficult to get a booking to tour Paranal these days. But, Tololo is beautiful as well - but I think that La Silla is a really fun place to tour - there are more telescopes there, about a dozen or so ranging from 1-m to 4-m. I did all of my post doctoral work on their 4-m. Okay, obviously I could go on and on. If your dad has questions, please have him write to me. I think it’s awesome that they'll tour one of the observatories. They are all great places to visit.
We knew well ahead of time that we would have to book at least three months in advance in order to visit Tololo, but we did not want the reservation to drive our itinerary, so we settled on visiting the ‘tourist’ observatory called Mamalluca. It is located in the Elqui Valley on another mountaintop not far from Tololo. The big difference is that Mamalluca has only small telescopes and gives tours every night when there is no disturbance from a full moon. We would have loved to visit the observatory as soon as we arrived in La Serena because the moon was just a sliver but we couldn’t get there until a few days later and then the moon was already one quarter.
The tour left La Serena at 8:30 pm and we drove for an hour and a half to the small town of Vicuna. On the way up into the Elqui Valley we could see the observatories of Tololo and Mamalluca lit up by the setting sun. The mountains are all dry and barren and it was strange to see the sun reflecting off the observatory’s domes from so far away. When we reached Vicuna it was pitch dark and we began the climb up the small dirt road. As we climbed higher and higher more and more stars became visible and when we got down from the van, we were astonished to see the Milky Way splashed across the sky above our heads.
We were led into the main building and gathered under the large dome above the telescope. Our astronomer/guide began to give us an overview of the night sky and started out by showing us Orion using a laser pointer. I was speechless. I know the constellation well, but had never seen all the stars that are enclosed by the four stars that signify the Hunter’s shoulders and feet. I had never seen the stars that represent his head, but they were plainly visible with the naked eye. Our guide told us about the movement of the heavens above us and mentioned that the constellation Leo would rise from behind the mountains before our tour ended. I was delighted because I was born under the sign of Leo.
We spent the next two hours looking through the telescope at the surface of the moon, at star clusters, a comet, a galaxy and we could actually discern the colour of a red star. We saw the famous Southern Cross for the very first time. Several of the group appeared to be less interested in the details the guide was relating, but Anil and I and a few others hung on his every word. As fewer and fewer people took a turn at the telescope, we were able to look into it more often ourselves. Seeing the rings of Saturn was probably the highlight of the tour for me.
The moon set just before our tour finished and there were even more stars visible than there were when we arrived. It was a wonderful experience to look at the night sky in one of the clearest places on earth. We can’t wait to see Kim again this summer in Victoria and hear more details about her time working at the major observatories in Chile. We’ll have to be well stocked up with Chilean wine; it will be a long, after-dinner conversation I’m sure. We are such an eager audience.