Sunday, July 28, 2013

Observatorio Paranal – Paranal Observatory.

Located in the Atacama desert, one of the driest places on Earth, at the top of a mountain consisting of an amazing “out of this world” cluster of buildings and telescopes, Paranal Observatory truly is “in the middle of nowhere” and it looks exactly like a lunar landscape, except for the blue sky and a paved road. Belonging to ESO (European Southern Observatory) co-founder Dr. Massimo Terenghi, orchestrated the design, construction, and implementation of the observatory. For science and astronomy enthusiasts, Paranal has in scientific terms a VLT (Very Large Telescope). A VLT actually consists of four 8.2 meter (26 feet) diameter telescopes and four smaller meter-size (3.2 feet) telescopes which can be operated independently or as one and for the time being is the most powerful optical array in the world. However for the star struck enthusiasts of a different kind, the futuristic looking observatory is the place where portions of the James Bond movie “Quantum of Solace” was filmed. We had heard that the free of charge, Saturday only tour had to be booked months in advance but our luck held with us and we were able to reserve a place for this coming Saturday for the morning tour. Our luck continued to hold because when we checked in at 10 am, there was only one other gentleman, an Italian visiting Antofagasta for a convention, who would be with us. The security here is strict and as we entered the property, we were given a short talk on the do and don’ts of the tour. The best part though was that filming and photography of any part of the facility was allowed and that there would be plenty of time for photos. Cool! As to be expected our two guides were knowledgeable not only about the observatory, telescopes and all the technical data but were also entertaining and easy to understand. The tour started with a walk around the exterior of the four large telescopes housed in their individual buildings and the smaller telescopes which combined become a VLT. We then moved inside one of the buildings to see one of them up close. Each telescope has a team of technicians who check and double check the cables, equipment, mirrors and casings every day so the telescopes are fully functional every night. How sophisticated are these telescopes? Well, there are no eyepieces and the astronomers are not allowed in the domes even at night! They are so complicated that they are run by engineers trained to do nothing but operate them every night from a control center. That’s right; these telescopes function by way of commands sent through banks of computers that micro-adjust the mirrors and coordinate 1, 2, 3, or all 4 of the 8.2 meter telescopes at once. From there we went to the control center and observed the computers that monitor and run the telescopes. It is from here that the telescopes are programmed, either individually or combined to watch the night sky for whatever project is being studied at that time. While there are 12 resident astronomers at Paranal, because of the VLT, they often have visiting astronomers who stay anywhere from a week to a couple of months. Most of the 120 staff work on a week on, week off basis and live at the observatory so from the command center, our final stop was the architecturally award winning hotel and living quarters. The hotel is built into the side of the mountain and as we entered through the main doors into the lobby, the place looked like a scene from Shang-ri-la. Huge tropical plants and trees gave way to a sparkling swimming pool complete with lounge chairs. Off to one side was a restaurant were all the staff ate (and ate very well, according to our guides). Since most of the activity is at night, we were cautioned to be quiet as much of the staff sleep during the day and even now at 1pm, there were only a handful of people, sitting around reading or on their laptops. “How cool would it be to stay here” I asked Tom but the guide told us that besides staff, only visiting astronomers were allowed to stay overnight. The 3 hour tour flew by and we had a great time and give this observatory tour a big thumbs up. As we drove back down the steep hillside back to the main road, a bus turned up the road, then a couple of cars, then a van. The 2pm afternoon tour. We were glad we went in the morning.

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