Under Atacama Skies in Chile - Adventure of a Lifetime

June 13, 2019

Editor's Note: All photos taken by the author unless otherwise specified.

I have dreamed of one day observing wonders of the night sky that never rise over Michigan since acquiring a passion for astronomy as a teenager in the 1950s. With eight decades on this planet coming soon, that dream recently became a "bucket list" priority. Finally, in 2019, it can be crossed off.

 

I returned from this once in a lifetime (maybe) adventure blurry eyed but brimming with excitement. Busy catching up with life since then, I have finally had time to sit down and reflect upon the wonderful new perspective of the surrounding universe I experienced March 30 through April 4 in the company of three great friends from a high plateau in northern Chile.

 

Arguably one of the darkest places on earth, the air over the Atacama Desert is so free of moisture that there is less than one inch of rain per year. There is but one little town in the region we selected to visit, a rollicking place called San Pedro de Atacama, to spill any significant light pollution. I am told that there are places so isolated you cannot see a hand in front of your face at night.

 

The Atacama Desert is becoming “the” place for astronomy, both for serious amateur and professional astronomers seeking high altitude and dark skies, and as still another attraction for tourists who for years have been flocking to this area for its natural wonders. At eight to ten thousand feet of elevation (depending on location), this broad plateau adjoins the much higher and far more rugged Andes Mountains, where numerous volcanic peaks reach skyward to form the spine of the amazingly long and narrow country of Chile.

 

 Volcanic peaks of Andes from near the lodge in San Pedro, our home for six days  

Portion of ALMA radio telescope array silhouetted against southern Milky Way (credit: NASA)

 

 

The European Southern Observatory’s "Very Large Telescope" lies about 100 miles from San Pedro. Closer still is the most technologically advanced of all astronomical complexes, an array of 66 large radio telescopes called ALMA. We could see its servicing center buildings from San Pedro, but the massive dish array itself is much higher in the mountains and not perceptible. Visits are highly restricted, and those who service the reception dishes have to take supplementary oxygen to avoid high altitude sickness.

 

Our group of four had been planning this adventure for close to two years, timed of course for a period when the moon, with its troublesome glow, would be near new phase. Two of my fellow travelers are longtime amateur astronomer friends who grew up in West Michigan and then went on to careers in the Minneapolis area.

 

Mark Boyd joined GRAAA as a 15-year-old around 1970, assisted with building and operating Veen Observatory, and was on staff at the Chaffee Planetarium while in college at Grand Valley. He recently retired from a long and successful career with General Mills. Andy Fraser is a Muskegon native who also went to Grand Valley in the late 60s and taught classes at Chaffee before heading off to graduate school at the University of Michigan. Also now retired, he spent most of his career with 3M. Completing the quartet was Mark Peterson, a retired electronics engineer and optics specialist who is a co-member with Mark and Andy of the Minnesota Astronomical Society.      

 

Three friends who accompanied the author. From the left : Mark Peterson, Andy Fraser, Mark Boyd

 

 Street scene in Santiago, Chile    

 

 

The adventure began March 27 in the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport as we boarded a grueling overnight "red eye" flight of almost 10 hours that landed at dawn in Santiago. I never really slept, and purposely stayed conscious as the onboard graphics screen revealed that the plane was passing over the equator. I was entering the Southern Hemisphere for the first time in my life.

 

Blurry eyed, we emerged from Customs to take a wild taxi ride into a bustling modern city where most of Chile’s inhabitants reside. We planned to get a good night’s rest and then spend a day checking out the sites in Santiago, and this proved to be a wise move.

 

The next day, we boarded a double decked tour bus, where we could get off at designated points of interest throughout the city, and then re-board one of the constantly circulating buses as desired. Onboard we had access to earphones connected to an ongoing narrative (select Spanish or English) describing sites as we passed. The wonderful Chilean people could not have been more friendly and helpful. True, there was a significant language barrier that could be both frustrating and amusing (we won’t even get into the complicated dollars to pesos currency conversion), but the Chilean folks seemed used to our communication/computation deficiencies and coped well.

 

A priority stop took us on an impressive cable car ride to the summit of San Cristobal Hill, a prominent peak in the heart of the city. From this perch, we had a spectacular view of the surrounding (and sprawling) metropolis, with the towering Andes Mountains to the east. Surmounting San Cristobal is a large statue of the Virgin Mary visible from throughout the city.

 

San Cristobal Hill from a distance

 

Santiago and Andes Mountains from cable car to San Cristobal

 

 

We were on a quest to find a now-mostly-unused but restored observatory established on San Cristobal in 1903, when Santiago was in its infancy and decades from becoming a sprawling light polluted metropolis. Andy Fraser had come to learn – for reasons that will become clear -- that what was originally the Mills Observatory had been the first major research facility in the southern hemisphere outside of South Africa.  It was a southern station for California’s Lick Observatory, and its 40 inch reflecting telescope was for a time one of the largest in the world.

 

Andy became relentless in trying to contact someone – anyone -  who could get us in for a peek. Following his 3M career, he decided to pursue a master’s degree in astronomy and selected as a thesis a thorough look into the career of prominent early-20th-century astronomer Heber Curtis. Andy was aware that Curtis was a pioneering researcher at Lick Observatory who made regular trips to observe from its southern station. Curtis also had significant connections to the University of Michigan, serving for a time as chair of its astronomy department. He is best noted as the astronomer who took on the even more prominent Harlow Shapley in what has been termed "The Great Debate" about the extent and nature of the Milky Way Galaxy. As he was digging around, Andy was surprised to learn that Curtis was born in his (and my) hometown of Muskegon.

 

Andy has since become a Curtis specialist, being the author of several papers about the noted astronomer. Luckily for all of us, his persistence during the Santiago visit paid off, and we got through the gate. It was a highlight of our day in the city. The vintage 40-inch reflector keeps pace with the earth’s rotation through a windup gravity drive, and an original spectrograph is attached. The preserved office in the nearby astronomers’ residence is like a walk back into the early 20th century. While long decommissioned, philanthropist Manuel Foster bought the facility in 1929 and donated it to Santiago’s Catholic University, which has since seen to its restoration and renaming in honor of Manuel Foster.

 

 At the entrance gate to Manuel Foster Observatory

 

The author, Andy Fraser, and Mark Peterson with the restored 40-inch reflecting telescope

 

 

That evening (March 29), we emerged from a restaurant in deepening autumn twilight to a dramatic preview of what a 5,000 mile change in latitude will do to the appearance of the sky. From minus 33.5 degree Santiago, the brightest star of night, Sirius, blazed nearly straight overhead. Back home in early spring, Sirius is near its maximum elevation of just over 30 degrees when darkness falls. The second brightest star, Canopus, was prominent in the south at about 55 degrees. Canopus never rises at the latitude of Michigan.

 

A second night of welcome rest in Santiago was followed on Saturday, March 30 by a two-hour plane ride 670 miles north -- slightly more than 10 degrees in latitude -- to the mining city of Calama and its surprisingly modern airport. Attaining a four wheel drive rental SUV was a good move, because from here on, for the most part, we would be in wilderness.

 

The approximately 70-mile drive from Calama to San Pedro was across desolate terrain with little to no vegetation and increasing altitude as we progressed. The distant Andes Mountains were in constant view, and one picturesque mountain pass reminded me of South Dakota’s Badlands. The pavement abruptly ended as we approached San Pedro de Atacama, a settlement dating back centuries. It grew over time around an oasis on the surrounding plateau.

 

On the road to San Pedro with Andes Mountains in distance

 

Main Street, San Pedro de Atacama  

 

 

My initial impression, not verbalized to my traveling buddies, was less than favorable. Is THIS where we will be spending the next six days? While facilities were rustic, the place was uniquely charming, and for the most part delightful. In fact, as Mark Boyd noted, San Pedro’s quaint nature, with dirt streets, tumbled down adobe facades, and dogs hanging out everywhere, is the very reason the village and its surrounding natural wonders together constitute one of Chile’s most popular tourist centers.

 

In the well-kept interiors of the restaurants and endless array of gift shops, we found positive examples of Chile’s relaxed and friendly culture. The venues were as clean as could be expected in such an extremely arid and breezy environment, where air conditioning is not often needed or found. Most meals were bountiful, tasty, and reasonably priced. We felt safe, and had few health issues, as long as we drank only bottled water, or beer!

 

It is time to concentrate on why we had come so far: our much-anticipated dark sky observing experiences. We quickly learned that it is not ALWAYS clear over the Atacama Desert, especially at the time of year we selected to go there. Early April marks the beginning of autumn, and even though San Pedro, at minus 23 degrees, is essentially on the Tropic of Capricorn, it experiences significant seasonal change due to the high elevation of 8,000 feet and atmospheric uplift brought about by the nearby mountains.

 

We ended up fighting clouds off and on during the whole observing run, with the last of the five scheduled nights completely clouded out and another one nearly so. We learned from the locals, and from our congenial host at the astronomy facility where we had booked a telescope, that things can get unsettled in early autumn.

 

Looking east, as sunset approaches on a typical autumn day   

 

Alain Maury with one of the largest telescopes at his Space Obs complex

 

 

"We had hardly a cloud during the whole month of September," noted Alain Maury, who operates a multiple telescope facility called Space Obs. “But it sure was cold,” he added. Remember, September is when this part of the southern hemisphere is transitioning from winter to spring. During our autumn visit, temperatures reached into the low 40s during predawn hours, though we tolerated this by packing in compactable thermal jackets,  gloves and hats. We had anticipated possible respiratory challenges due to the elevation, but for the most part experienced nothing significant.

 

Prior to our first scheduled observing night (March 30-31) we drove the few miles from San Pedro to Space Obs in late afternoon to get the lay of the land and meet the affable Maury. We also ran into friendly visiting observers who had come south from as far away as Montreal, Pennsylvania, and even Italy. Our reserved telescope turned out to be a fine instrument, a 22-inch short focal length Dobsonian reflector on an alt-azimuth mount, located right out in the open due to lack of dew and low threat of rain in the arid environment. With only a short ladder required to reach the eyepiece, it was ideal for our strictly visual observing agenda. No time for elaborate imagining on this trip. Alain provided us with an excellent set of eyepieces, lawn chairs, and chart table. We were good to go -- except for the clouds.

 

Alain Maury and observers from around the world

 

22-inch Dobsonian telescope for our deep sky observing   

 

 

The accompanying picture of our telescope tells it all as sunset approached on the first scheduled night. Clouds were everywhere. After the orientation, it was back to San Pedro for dinner, a little rest, and hopefully improving conditions.

 

Happily, the clouds were breaking as we headed back out to Space Obs a couple hours after sunset. I could detect a hint of never-before-seen southern Milky Way clearly through our vehicle’s window, and upon arrival, my friends and I stepped out to a celestial scene that will remain forever etched in our minds.

 

A whole new panorama, previously unseen by any of us except Andy, unfolded toward the south, and for me viewing it for the first time was a truly spiritual experience. I initially just stood there, taking it all in. I was at last realizing a long held dream.

 

Stretching southeastward from the star Sirius – nearly overhead -- the Milky Way glowed with increasing richness as it drew closer to the twin bright stars Alpha and Beta in the constellation Centaurus. Unmistakable, the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds stood out as if detached segments of that galactic glow, which in a sense they are. They do indeed look like amorphous wisps of cloud in the blackness.

 

Here and there in and near the Milky Way were glowing nebulas, interspersed with patches of obscuring cosmic dust. Most conspicuous among them was the so called "Coal Sack," a large dark oval with practically no naked eye stars lying within. Toward the southeast, our galaxy’s central bulge in the constellations Scorpius and Sagittarius was rising.

 

The fabled "Southern Cross" is far more compact than its northern counterpart in Cygnus, and lacks a star marking where the post and cross staff intersect. Still, it is an eye-catching configuration of mostly 2nd magnitude stars lying adjacent to the Coal Sack.

 

View toward south celestial pole, with Magellanic Clouds left and Southern Cross and “Coal Sack” right below bright stars Alpha and Beta Centauri (credit: SpaceObs.com)

 

 

While the Milky Way band and Magellanic Clouds stood out and were rich with interesting features, there are vast regions of the southern celestial sphere that seemed unremarkable, devoid of bright stars and prominent constellations. There is 1st magnitude Achernar, at the southern end of the meandering (and dim) constellation of Eridanus, Canopus (second brightest star of earth’s sky); and Alpha and Beta Centaurus. That is about it for bright stars south of the celestial equator that cannot be seen from home.

 

Conspicuous by its absence is a significant star to mark the south pole of the sky, indeed ANY significant stars anywhere close. The stars comprising the minor constellation Octans in this region are mostly 4th magnitude or fainter. Surrounding constellations are indistinct. To roughly identify the pole, the observer imagines a point in the sky halfway between the Southern Cross and Small Magellanic Cloud.

 

What made our view of the newfound features, and in fact the entire panorama surrounding us, truly remarkable was the amazing contrast brought about by the relatively dark conditions and lack of significant water vapor in the air. I used the term "relatively dark" on purpose. I have been under darker skies on Beaver Island, but none more spectacular. There is a light dome from nearby San Pedro, and a lesser one from the town of Calama 70 miles away, and landscape features around us could be made out with difficulty. But once the observer’s gaze is lifted to beyond 20 degrees or so from the horizon, and when there were no scatted clouds around to reflect ambient light, the sky is dark, really dark!

 

A brief look to the north brought our gaze to familiar constellations visible from home, but in distinctly unfamiliar positions. Leo was upside down at about 50-degree elevation. Orion was diving headfirst toward the northwest, and Taurus lay sideways along the northwest horizon. It was all very disorienting. Later, we found the Big Dipper, upside down and just barely above the northern horizon.

 

Three of the five scheduled nights provided us with three to four hour windows to new revelations. While productive sessions had to be worked in around spells of cloudiness, the wonderfully dark skies provided dramatic contrast between a targeted object and its background field. This was consistently true whether sweeping the sky with binoculars, checking out wide field views through the compact and excellent homemade 6-inch open tube "rich field" reflector Mark Boyd had fabricated around a fine primary ground and polished by Mark Peterson, or training the 22-inch light bucket at a specific object. We had brought along an ultra-high contrast filter, but never needed it.

 

Planetary nebulas, a particular interest of mine, are plentiful along the southern Milky Way and elsewhere on the southern celestial sphere, but most have such small angular diameters that they appear star-like. We did not devote precious telescope time to trying to pick them out of the rich stellar background. One remarkable exception was NGC 5189, with its weirdly grotesque shape for a planetary.

 

I have been consistently asked upon return to name the most impressive new celestial object observed during our adventure. To do so is difficult because there was so much that was memorable. Certainly my first view through a large telescope of Omega Centauri, the largest and richest globular cluster in the sky, was eye popping. So was the Tarantula Nebula in the Large Magellanic Cloud and the odd Centaurus A spherical galaxy with a prominent dust lane through the middle. The wonderfully concentrated globular 47 Tucanae also should make the list of standouts. If I had to pick one from among them, it would have to be the intricate complex of glowing gas and dark knots of obscuring dust lying near the star Eta Carinae. This nebula is so unique and impressionable that I kept going back to it again and again. The accompanying photo, an uncredited Internet post in high contrast black and white, best approximates the impressive view.

 

Intricate nebulosity near star Eta Carinae (credit unknown)