Monday, 18 February 2008

Star Gazing in San Pedro de Atacama

Whilst in San Pedro I fulfilled one of my goals for the trip by taking a trip to the observatory of a French astronomer called Alain Maury. The north of Chile and the Atacama desert in particular, is famous for its hosting of an international array of telescopes and observatories. The high altitude, cloudless skies, predictable winds and lack of humidity converge to produce optimal conditions for observing the heavens. Alain has been running trips for several years now and his house outside of San Pedro is well kitted out for star gazing.

On arriving at his house we were given an introduction to the Southern night sky and the methods for observing the stars planets and constellations. With so little atmospheric and ambient light pollution the stars reach down to the horizon on all sides. The bright band of the Milky Way bisects the sky from North to South with tightly packed nebulae and carbon ‘sacks’ where gas obstructs the stars leaving gaping holes. To the West of the Milky Way we could pick out the Megellanic Clouds, neighbouring galaxies that appear as puffy clouds in the night sky, only observable in the Southern Hemisphere.

After our introduction to the constellations of Leo, Orion, the Pleiades and many more we were told how to locate the Southern axis around which the stars seem to rotate. We were told how to find the various planets before the telescopes were set up to observe the Saturn with it’s rings and Mars in all its glory. Nebulae, barely visible o the human eye became dense clusters of multicoloured gas and nascent stars.

It is unlikely that we will ever return to anywhere as well suited to star gazing as this, however, evenings in the garden in North Wraxall will take on a new dimension.

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