Sunday, January 1

Telescope in the Atacama Desert


Since retiring Phil's been hankering after a remote observatory.
When we first came to the Cook Islands over thirty years ago it seems that the night skies were clear and the Milky Way looked magnificent for most of the year. I'm sure that's an exaggeration; you remember the things you want to as time goes by. But certainly the sky at night is much cloudier than it was when Phil first built a telescope on Rarotonga. That's global warming in action at the local level.
It's been a long time coming but at long last Phil's telescope in Chile has seen first light.
The observatory is situated at the southern end of the Atacama Desert, 1600 metres high, in an area called El Sauce.The site is home to several other telescopes including four large domes owned by a group of Russian astronomers who also have air-conditioned containers with living, office and storage quarters. Phil's telescope is the first of what will eventually be six set up in a large shed with a roll-off roof. Another much smaller shed nearby has several small telescopes used for tracing space junk. And site has room for more observatories of varying sizes.
Electricity shouldn't be a problem as there's a large array of solar panels with plenty of room for more and, along with clear skies at night, the Atacama has lots of sunshine during the day. Not all the time though - about 330 days a year!
The scope has has been operational for a few months now but needed some extra bits and pieces added to it so we had a holiday that included flying to Santiago, Chile's capital, and then La Serena, a forty-five minute flight further north.
Hired a 4WD SUV iin La Serena and drove to Hurtado, the town nearest the site. The 4WD was necessary because most of the roads we were on were one lane dirt with occasional passing places as you can see in the video.
It was quite an adventure, but the thing about adventures is that they're usually uncomfortable at the time otherwise they'd just be called 'travel'. It was hot during the day but one night we stayed at the telescope and boy was that cold! At 1600m above sea level, when the sky is clear the temperature drops like a stone. During the day the wind howls around the various observatories, because of thermal currents. At night the temperature falls and the winds die down. This means that very early morning is the only time to fly the drone to get some aerial footage, so we were up before dawn and wore layers of t-shirts, jumpers and jackets to ward off the chill. Also needed to keep the drone and GoPro batteries in pockets to warm them up before they would operate.
Living in a tropical island paradise, you forget what really cold weather is like!