Gary's Astronomy Tour of Chile: Day One
Thursday 9th May 2013
Our first day begins with an early rise to a fabulous Chilean sunrise, breakfast on the plateau and the phone rings... its Dr David Murphy from the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics at the Universidad Catolica de Chile in Santiago - he is the fixer and creator of all things Kielder Observatory in Chile. I finish feeding my desert fox friend and then it's down to business: David wants us in La Serena at a conference.
What an honour - the conference marks the 50th anniversary of Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory (CTIO). From CTIO a team of cosmologists detected a sign that the universe was accelerating at extreme distances. Wow, they even won the Nobel Prize! And they are going to be there... I'm off as fast as I can, laughing as I watch Glenn Perry from In House Films, our camera man in pyjamas, stumble to the van to guide me to my next destination. It's all hands to the pump as we race off in the warm Chilean sun, in search of scientists with stories.
We arrive in La Serena at a technical college called INACAP. There there are young Chilean people enjoying the sun but we have work to do! In I go and am met by Leonor Opazo, Head of the NOAO-S Education & Outreach Program. She has contributed greatly in helping me organise my itinerary and help me gain access to some of the world's best sites of astronomy research (with the ever present help of Dr David Murphy). I hardly know what to expect and am quite nervous - but out comes Nicole van der Bliek, the Director of CTIO, who is very friendly as she tells me about the history of CTIO, showing me even the old instrumentation she is careful not to throw away as she loves the history of this incredible facility. Rightly so she is protective – what a history!
Nicole then introduces me to some eminent scientists who have been involved in the Chilean astronomy story. Firstly I meet Dr Malcolm Smith, a former director of CTIO and a dyed-in-the-wool astronomer: his passion for astronomy oozes from him! He tells me about plans for light pollution control and that very soon Chile hopes to have 70% of the world's research telescopes. Chile is perfect for astronomy because it's so high up and the humidity is so low (clear nights every night, just like at Kielder...!).
Hardly a pause for breath to reflect on the importance of this - before I meet Dr Alastair Walker, an instrument scientist who helped build the Dark Energy Camera (DECam). DECam, what an important instrument - it contributed to the shared discovery of the accelerating universe! This is AWESOME I can't stop smiling inappropriately (I think they will think I am mad...). Alastair also tells me about new plans and technology designed to detecting more and more objects lurking in our universe.
Then my next interviewee comes along: Dr R. Chris Smith, what a guy, I love him, so energetic and friendly. We talk for 30 minutes about the universe and how his team conducted (along with another US team) the High–z Supernova Search which also contributed to the shared discovery of the accelerating universe and for which they won the Nobel Prize.
What a day, but it's not over... phew no time to breathe, its back to the astro-wagon and off to see the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in the flesh... better still we are staying there overnight! EVEN better still: I'll be in the control room with Dr Scott Sheppard from the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism at the Carnegie Institution! Can this get any better? YES, OF COURSE!
We arrive at the CTIO Observatories just as the sun is going down, what a sight... a blood-red sunset over the Chilean hills and mountains. Adam (Director of Filming) asks us to stop so we roll out and take in the view. It's stunning, all the way up to my north where the 4m Blanco Telescope sits majestically, rightly proud of its discoveries!
I am greeted by Tito the CTIO cab driver, fed, watered and led to our room. It's beautiful! The CTIO staff make us all feel so welcome with a lovely room, a SHOWER AT LAST! and an atmosphere promising a special night of astronomy. I am so excited I eat my meal in 0.5 seconds and race up the hill, but wait! Something is wrong, I can't breathe, I feel unfit, why? Hmmm; 7,000 ft altitude maybe, that's it! WOW it hits me hard, so I slow down and take in the sight, take a few pictures then enter the control room.
The control room of the Blanco Telescope is like the deck of the Enterprise, beautiful in its promise of technical and scientific excellence. I meet Scott, a very approachable mid-west American, and he tells me of his research using DECam's very wide field to study near earth objects.
DECam's wide field has 3 degrees of the sky covered by the detector (in case you're not sure what 3 degrees means, it means he can scan an area in the sky as wide as 6 full moons, so). He shows me a 'dot' on a screen and tells me that this 'dot' was detected in March 2013 by his team. It's pretty close, Universe-wise – from Earth only you'd have to travel the distance to the Sun 84 times to get there! And it's hardly a 'dot' - maybe as much as 1000km wide!!! Thankfully, although close in universe terms, it's far away enough from Earth.
We talk astronomy all night and I keep dipping out to check my astrophotography camera and then back in to see how the 4m Blanco Telescope and DECam are fairing. Then it hits me... I'm in the control room which contributed to the discovery of the accelerating universe! Well that's Chilean astronomy - at the forefront of astronomical research.
As I grow sleepy I am left with the feeling that the people who I have met are the very best and today they have invited me into a family of discovery. Tomorrow I'm off to La Silla in the Atacama Desert to see the European Southern Observatory (ESO) the New Technology Telescope (NTT) - join me later to find out how it goes! All in one day, I can hardly believe it!