by Gene Allen
On our way to Antarctica, we flew from Santiago up to northern Chile to spend a few days in the Atacama Desert. One of the many highlights of our visit there was an evening at SPACE, the acronym for San Pedro de Atacama Celestial Explorations (http://www.spaceobs.com/en/Informations). It is a lodge and observatory in a suburb community a few miles south of the oasis town. The owner and founder is Alain Maury, a professional astronomer currently engaged in private research into near Earth asteroids and comets. Wikipedia credits him with the discovery of seven asteroids and two comets, and asteroid 3780 Maury was named in his honor. They accommodate quite a number of people, dividing folks up into groups by language and loading us into small buses from a street corner in town. We never felt crowded or herded, and had decent access to telescope views.
It is thrilling to just look up and see the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds floating overhead, and rather disorienting to see Orion upside down, balancing awkwardly on his right shoulder. The Pleiades were easy to pick out nearby, and Sirius was rising, mistaken by several for Venus. In their summer, the Milky Way is disappointing, laying flat and low along the northern horizon, mostly lost in the minimal sky glow from San Pedro. Saturn was riding our galaxy’s western end down and was a poor target, but Mars shone clearly much higher.
Valeria Heindl, the young lady doing the sky tour for us in English, did an absolutely wonderful job. She kept the group of twenty some entertained and engaged, guiding us through the visible constellations, inviting impressions, and asking questions. Although I am a neophyte compared to so many of the AAAP members, I surprised her by having many of the admittedly rudimentary answers. They had more than a half dozen manual telescopes aimed at various available targets. She described and re-centered each for the next few to grab a quick peek. The scopes grew in aperture, and shrank in field of view, up to the 72 cm (28.3”) Dobsonian, aimed at the Tarantula Nebula in the LMC. The eyepiece view lacked the colors we have come to expect from the spectacular astrophotography with which we are blessed today, but it was still visually impressive. As she became swamped with questions, I was awarded the job of re-centering it, which had to be accomplished after just two or three observers. There was no time to learn how well the finder was centered, and delicate positioning movements were easier from the eyepiece end, so I was repeatedly scrambling up the rather substantial ladder in the dark.
It was a chilly but rewarding evening. Valeria invited all of us to return in winter for a more dramatic Milky Way display, and Alain responded to my email with news that a new 45 inch telescope is expected to see first light this month. By next month, I will have been able to gather a few photos of my most fortuitous visit to ALMA.