SOUTH AMERICA – THE JOURNEY PART 6
Mamalluca Observatory, Vicuña, northern Chile
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” the man in front roared, excitement rising in his booming voice. I moved forward to take my turn. “Isn’t it surreal?” he yelled. Possibly, if I could actually see something other than a black void. “Look harder!” he snapped.
I squinted my right eye and peered down the telescope again. There it was, in all its glory. A squeal escaped from my lips as I stared, half unbelievingly, at Saturn and its glowing white ring.
I’d waited four nights to get a glimpse of the second largest planet in our solar system. The weather, torrential rain followed by cloudy skies, had obliterated any chance of viewing the sky from Mamalluca Observatory at Vicuña in northern Chile.
“Chile is one of the top four places in the world to observe the universe,” beamed our guide. “We only have 26 days of cloud in a year.” And what luck that I’d managed to catch several of them. “In a couple of years time we will have the most powerful telescope in the world.” His arm motioned towards the silhouette of a nearby mountain range. “It’ll be positioned over there.”
With a magnification of 30 times, it will be the most expensive and far-reaching telescope ever built. The naked eye can see 5 times into the sky. The GPS telescope from which I viewed Saturn was 17 times, and with this new technology astronomers will be able to see astronauts walking on the moon’s surface. Its main purpose, however, will be to monitor comets colliding into earth.
“It costs 100 euros per second for astronomers to use the latest telescopes in Chile,” continued Horacio.
You wouldn’t want to sneeze during your alloted limit, I thought.
“Where you are now, at Mamalluca, it’s just an observatory and the costs are low because the telescopes aren’t the newest ones. But over there,” again his arm pointed south, “that’s where the money lies.”
Funded by Europe and the USA, the ultimate magnifying machines are taking pride of place in the rolling hills of this South American country. Although Chile has the perfect skies for star-gazing, it doesn’t have the money.
“National astronomers are alloted a 10 per cent slice to view the skies for free, in turn for other countries using Chile as their telescopic and research base. The only thing is, we don’t have enough astronomers to utilise the entire time limit. So professors from abroad can teach here for a year voluntarily and take advantage of the telescopes.”
The fact that I had seen the moon’s pockmarked surface from Mamalluca had made me giddy. I doubt I’d be able to contain myself if I could look at other planets’ surfaces. However, at 100 euros per second, there was as much chance of that happening as me going into space itself.
“The next total lunar eclipse will be in Chile,” Horacio told our group of five, “in Rapa Nui on 11 July.” The Pacific Island, more Polynesian in genetic makeup than Chilean, has been booked out for the eclipse for the past two years.
“To be honest, we’re over the moon with our view of Saturn this evening, never mind viewing an eclipse,” I said, cringing at the awful, yet necessary pun. Seeing the planet, which is 10 times larger than earth, was so surreal it could almost have been a sticker.
Our glimpses at red and blue stars were also an eye opener. I thought they were all white but apparently not. Blue stars are the hottest, burning at over 25,000k while red ones are a mere 3,500k. In comparison, water boils at 373k.
The viewings, information and the powerpoint presentation make Mamalluca a hotspot on the gringo trail in northern Chile. And it didn’t disappoint.
WHERE ON EARTH?
- One of the world’s leading countries for observing the solar system due to its year-round clear skies
- South America’s most southern situated country
- Owns Rapa Nui, or Easter Island, which is famous for its mythical moai stone statues and is the site for the July 11 solar eclipse
- Costs 3,500 Chilean pesos or US$7 (5,000 including transport from nearby Vicuña) for the 2-3 hour guided visit
- Tours are in Spanish, English and French and need to be booked in advance
- Is one of the best places in the world to gaze at the stars
- Is situated in northern Chile
- www.mamalluca.org Av Gabriela Mistral 260, Vicuña
PHOTOGRAPHS COPYRIGHT OF JANE BATCHELOR