Saturday, July 20, 2013

Star gazing at Mamalluca and Del Pangue Observatories.

Another reason we wanted to explore this area of Chile is because of the plethora of observatories. Of all the astronomical telescopes in the world, 30% of them are in Chile. Over the last few decades, the country has become acknowledged as a world leader in the field of astronomy. Many international astronomical organizations have invested and settled here and Chile is now host to the biggest and most powerful astronomical ground-based observatories on Earth. Why Chile and why this area. Well, the Atacama Desert and surrounding areas has some of the driest and moisture-free air on the planet. One of the most noticeable features of the region is the quality of the night sky resulting from a rare combination of geology and geography. The effects of the atmospheric conditions from the Pacific Ocean, the winds across desert floor and the altitude of the Andes come together to form sunny days and crystal-clear, cloudless nights, more than 300 days per year. This combined with a total absence of light pollution thanks in part to the Chilean government investing millions into changing the lights in the towns of the region to sodium vapor, make for ideal star gazing activities. Another reason why Chile was chosen is because of the curvature of the earth, there are many important and unique objects in the southern sky, including the center of the galaxy and the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds that are not visible within the Northern Hemisphere. While many of the observatories are for scientific studies only, a few are set up for tourist viewing and still others allow visitors to tour their facilities. One of the most popular for tourists is Mamalluca Observatory and our first encounter with the observatories of Chile. Located nine kilometers (6 miles) northeast of Vicuña, on top of Cerro Mamalluca at 1,200 meters (4,600 feet) elevation, the observatory was built specifically for public use and is run by the Municipality de Vicuña. We made our reservations in town and were told to be ready to leave from their office at 6:30 pm. The ride up to the observatory took about 30 minutes and by the time we got to the top, it was already quite dark. From there we were divided into groups and each group was given a guide. Ours was naturally an English speaking group, and besides us there was Richard, a gentleman from Chico, California and a young couple from Latvia. The two and a half hour tour started with us viewing the night sky through the large main telescope, a 30cm (12 inch) Schimdt-Cassegrain donated by the nearby scientific-only Cerro Tololo InterAmerican Observatory. With the guide operating a GPS remote control, we were able to see a dazzling display of stars, planets, galaxies, nebulas and clusters, including Jupiter, Saturn’s rings, the Orion nebula, the Andromeda galaxy and Sirius. From there we moved to a smaller telescope, where we viewed a couple of binary stars, the Southern Cross and an elliptical galaxy. The tour ended in an auditorium where we watched a short 10 minute film on the history of the universe and how to access certain web-sites via the internet in which you can plug in the date and city where you are to learn what is visible in the night sky at that time. We had read some derogatory comments regarding this tour stating amongst other things that it is overcrowded, over-rated, and cheesy and aimed at complete beginners. We could not disagree more. With only five people in our group, we were never rushed and had plenty of time to look through the telescopes. Luis, our guide was knowledgeable and informative. He answered all our questions in a way we would understand without being too simplistic and he adapted the tour to our interests and not some set format. All in all, we had a great time and looked forward to delving into the mysteries of the universe further. And further means the other show in town, Observatorio Del Pangue (Pangue Observatory). This is a private observatory run by a French astronomer Eric Escalera, who holds a Ph.D. in Astrophysics. Eric, who runs all the tours and is one of the guides, advertises his observatory trips as being more personalized, more exclusive and more advanced than Mamalluca. We are looking forward to checking out the differences. The first difference is that there is only one group and the maximum number of people he takes per night is 10. We understand that during the summer months you have to book Pangue Observatory well in advance however being winter there are only tours Thursday through Saturday and there were only 4 people to our group. After meeting at the downtown office, we were taken via car to the observatory. Located 17 km (about 10 miles) from Vicuna, the observatory sits on a mountain at 1500 meters (4,800 feet) elevation and is close to the scientific observatories of SOAR, Gemini, and Tololo. The night sky from the top of the mountain is stunning and much more remote than Mamalluca. From our vantage point, there is a wonderful 180 degree panoramic view of the sky with virtually no light-pollution from the surrounding area. Assisted by two other guides, Eric leads us through some astronomy basics before letting us loose. With the option of 4 telescopes, their equipment is high quality and we are allowed to operate the GPS remotes and assist in programming the telescopes to view whatever pleases us in the night sky. The entire staff is very competent and friendly and switch back and forth between Tom and I, speaking in English and the other couple, who speak only Spanish. With their help we located stars and planets, viewed elliptical and spiral galaxies and checked out a “dying” star. We viewed our own galaxy, the Milky Way sweeping across the night sky so visible with its opaque “milkiness” and studied and learned about the different star clusters. The few hours that we were on top of the mountain flew by and we loved every minute of it. It seems whenever I look at the sky, stars, planets and universe in its entire splendor, I am forced to think about the big question in life, Is there a God? It is written that Darwin spent nearly a third of his 5-year voyage around the world in Chile studying evolution. But for me, I am a believer. Why? After admitting that my beliefs are undoubtedly influenced by my Catholic upbringing, I am also struck by the remarkable beauty and magnificent grandeur of not only our own planet but of the cosmos. Reason and intuition tell me that this magnificence could not have come about through natural forces alone. Of course there is the multiversal argument, the likelihood of life evolving elsewhere in the universe and what this might mean for religion and theology. Many astronomers are convinced that with the upcoming space-based and ground-based telescopes virtually every star we will be studying will have planets and that surely there is intelligent life elsewhere in the universe. Ah, the mystery of life, death and our place in the grand scheme of things. We gave a big thumbs up to both of these touristic observatories and if ever you are in Vicuna, check them both out.

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