Friday April 25, 2014 — After our amazing time spent in Rapa Nui, Dwight and I boarded a small plane up to the Atacama Desert in the northern part of Chile. The Atacama Desert is home to a number of international observatories and collaborative space exploration projects, including the Paranal Observatory and ALMA, which was not yet open for public tours during our time there. However, I was able to book instead a stargazing tour with SPACE Observatory, a small outfit in town which gave small group tours of the night sky for around $35 USD pp.
Friday evening the sun had set and we boarded a bus along with about a dozen other people at the arranged meeting place for our night-time tour of the galaxy. The bus drove us out of the “city” limits and to their property, where our Canadian guide (Dwight says his name was Les but I can’t remember), an industrial-strength laser pointer, and half a dozen powerful telescopes awaited us.
Les (if that was his real name) proceeded to give us a comprehensive, illuminating, and at times even technical tour of the southern sky, with his words and his laser pointer singling out all kinds of stars, constellations, planets, even the Magellanic Clouds. He was a bit cheesy with his jokes but his knowledge was vast and sharp as a tack. He taught us how to estimate where the South Pole was based on the Southern Cross, showed us the important stars in the zodiac constellations (I think I could maybe even find Leo now, or at least his head), explained that Alpha Centauri is 4.4 light years away, and waxed poetic about the light from Arcturus which left its star just before I was born, 35 years ago, to meet me there that night. That was one of his extra-cheesy lines.
He talked for a while, never erring, never flagging, and then he and an assistant set up the telescopes aimed at different heavenly phenomena. We all took turns looking at Saturn, a pale yellow-orange disk with rings so well-defined it could’ve been a drawing. Jupiter, a big round ball surrounded by the tiny specks of light that were its four largest moons: Io, Callisto, Ganymede, and Europa. The “Jewel Box,” a cluster of glittering stars of different temperatures that shone red and blue and white. A nursery in the Magellanic Cloud, with a sparkling latticework of young stars just starting out in life. A nebula with tentacles of gas that gave the appearance of an otherworldly tarantula. Mars, the glowing red orb, which never came quite into focus enough for me to see the polar ice cap.
It was amazing, every minute of it, and after two hours it still felt like it was over much too soon. At the end we went inside one of the buildings and warmed up over hot chocolate while Les answered questions from the audience. A little before 11pm the bus took us back and dropped us off at our hotel.
Want to do this yourself?
San Pedro de Atacama Celestial Exploration (SPACE) offers a variety of services, from star tours to telescope rental. They even have an associated lodge for staying out of town to avoid the light pollution. http://www.spaceobs.com/en
We stayed at the Hotel Altiplanico which was a lovely base on the edge of San Pedro and provided a great location for exploring the town while staying quiet at night. Domingo Atienza 282, San Pedro de Atacama; Reservations: +56-2-29850869 / +56-2-29850917 / email@example.com http://www.altiplanico.cl/en/altiplanico-san-pedro-de-atacama/