The Long Ride Home

A couple of hours of semi-clear sky on Saturday night was all I got for my three nights at Hacienda Los Andes. I did do some great hiking, drank juice from oranges I had seen on trees and wrote two final exams. I also found Neptune on their solar system hike.  It took three tries.  Neptune, you see, is far enough away to be on someone else’s property and the trail sort of peters out.

The thing I had dreaded about this trip was the drive home.  Drives home after excellent astronomy trips are fraught with danger as driving while tired is a terrible, no-good thing to do.  No worries on this trip.  I awoke a little before 7am, fresh from almost ten hours of sleep, packed the car, had another excellent breakfast, paid my bill and was on the road, as planned, at 9am.


I made it to pavement with less than an hour to spare before the rain came.  And then it rained, hard, pretty much the whole way down to Santiago.  No majestic sea vistas on this trip, though the surf was extraordinary. I also saw a lot of flooding, or soon to be flooding.  All the charming little streams coming down out of the mountain to reach the Pacific were, yesterday, raging torrents. In many places, the land was trying to subsume the road and we all dodged and weaved around fairly large rocks in the road.  That lasted from northeast of Ovalle to Ruta 5. I saw a number of villages clearly having, or about to have, serious problems with water.

Oh, Ovalle. If you read my last post and are in the least given to worrying about me, probably finishing with “I wonder if there will be gas” was a less than inspiring ending. Yesterday Chile observed St. Peter and St. Paul day. On occasion, holidays in Chile feature nationwide shutdowns. I’ve written before about how that probably is how a revered holiday should be celebrated.  And, yet, there are schmucks like me trying to drive 300 miles in the rain.  I could use some gas.  (Honestly, I did the math before leaving and I had enough to reach Santiago.  Just.)

Never fear. I found a station open in Ovalle (after passing two closed) but all the services along Ruta 5 were open and very, very busy.  Also, as I gassed up in Ovalle, I got to experience an earthquake from inside a car while it was being fueled.  Exciting.  And good for the nerves of those given to worry.  It was small, 5.1, but centered bang on Ovalle.  I thought the fuel attendant had roughed up the car and asked him about it.  He laughed and said “earthquake”.  Again, I’m not fooling anyone here that I’m a native Spanish speaker.

The rest was just the usual long slog, holiday drive through gray skies kind of drive we’ve all endured. It was tiring but uneventful. I even stopped off at the store before going home so it really was like coming back from Thanksgiving or Christmas up north.

Pictures from the weekend:

No snakes in Chile, they said.


Plenty of goats, though.IMG_6778

Views from the trail.IMG_6751IMG_6750IMG_6745IMG_6742

“At one point the trail is very steep. A ladder is in place to help you.”  Um, thanks?IMG_6737

I climbed up to the left.IMG_6736


From the hill above the observatory/observing field.  You can rent a scope in a dome or a pad, with power, to operate your own gear.


It’s about 150-200m from the inn to the field and the last 50m are steeply uphill.  Fun to do at night with a dim red flashlight. IMG_6779

In addition to clouds, it was very, very windy. Windy enough to move this metal housing off its pad.  Underneath is a permanently aligned equatorial mount.IMG_6780

The TEC 200mm f/8 refractor I rented for the very few hours of clear sky we got.IMG_6781

My travel dob on a pad when it looked like we might get a clear window. The wind prohibited its use.  IMG_6795

And, finally, astrophotos taken with the TEC 200.  It was a terrible night for long focal length imaging what with wind and poor seeing.  But I really wanted a close shot of these two (and, actually a few other) objects.

Omega Centauri. This is a stack of twenty 30-second exposures.


The Jewel Box open cluster. Stack of three 30-second exposures. I took 90 exposures.  Three were usable.  The wind really was incredible.  The first is a crop on the cluster and the second the full image.


Finally, a mosaic of the solar system markers on the Hacienda’s mile and a half solar system walk.


Just Like Home

On the heels of yesterday’s post, I thought I should report that I actually did squeeze in a little viewing last night. It was very much like what I’m used to at home in that it was quite challenging.  There was high wind and what I looked at was dictated by where the clouds weren’t. That is a pretty common experience for the amateur telescopic observer. We tend not to live where conditions are often excellent. My previous experiences in South America have been near perfect: calm, no clouds, excellent transparency and minimal light pollution.  I won’t say the environmental challenges presented last night were nice but it wasn’t surprising.

I also had a chance to talk to Elke, the operator of the observatory here, for a bit and, apparently, my last trip here in March was the first time they’ve been completely booked by astronomers.  Their guests run about 50% Chilean with the remainder being North Americans and Europeans.  They have trouble attracting European astronomers because Namibia, an equally dark, dry place, is a much closer flight. Also, the majority of their guests are not astronomers.  As I’ve written, it is the sort of place that one could stay and enjoy without astronomy.  Two such guests arrived last night.

I remember when I first exchanged email with Elke she was very cautious in saying anything about weather. Apparently, some amateur astronomers are under the impression that it is always clear in Chile (not true).  The Hacienda gets about 300 clear nights a year (compared to Winston-Salem, which gets two).  Of course, that leaves 65 not clear nights.  Worse, yet, those not clear nights tend to be clustered, so if you arrive and it’s cloudy, it’s likely to stay cloudy. When I was here in March they had a run of 20 consecutive nights clear dusk to dawn. I got three of those. So, hard to complain too much.

It sucks to travel a long way for astronomy and get clouds. But it’s also a common – and obvious – hazard. I think she has been worried that I’d be upset about the clouds this time around and, of course, I’m disappointed.  But the idea of being irritated with the Hacienda is silly. But not so silly, evidently, that they don’t get some of that from guests. Anyway, prior to the current owner buying the place in, I think she said, 2010, it was simply a mountain inn.  There are horses that can be rented and miles of trails.  I hiked for about three hours yesterday, summitting what I thought was the local high point.  The trouble with the Andes is that there is always something higher just past the next ridge. I also saw my first snake in Chile. Elke assures me it’s harmless.  I will quote her: “All our snakes are non-venomous. Oh, did it have orange on it?” It was left unclear if the orange-tinted snake violated her statement about the amount of venom in local snakes.  Anyway, I’ll have pictures up when I’m back to better bandwidth.

In 2010, they began construction of the observatories and they cater mostly to astrophotogaphers. There are two scopes available for visual use: the 12.5-inch Portaball I used last time and a TEC 8-inch f/8 refractor I’m using this time.  I had planned to split two nights each with them but with the wind and poor transparency it made no sense to set up the Portaball. Nor could my little travel Dob deal with the wind (think Oklahoma strong). So, I used the refractor for almost three hours last night and, if it clears at all tonight, will again.  It’s unlikely to be clear tonight so my plan is to pack the car today, be in bed early and hit the road by 8:30 or 9. It’s about six hours back.  The only potential hitch is that tomorrow is a national holiday (why I’m here this weekend at all) I probably don’t have the gas to get back home. I’m assuming the gas stations on the Pan American Highway (Ruta 5) are open on holidays but…I’ve seen strange things on holidays in Chile. Elke has given the locations of all the stations before I hit Ruta 5 so maybe one of them will be open.

So, to sum up: A night dodging clouds and wind that was abruptly ended when thick clouds rolled in a little after 10pm. So, just like home.

Green is Bad

Yesterday, I drove six hours to the Hurtado Valley, dragging a pile of work to do in the downtime of what I hoped would be a busy weekend of observing.  I was stunned on the drive as, in places, it reminded me of Ireland, with strange plants.  The hills were green with fresh grass – winter just started, recall – and, as Ruta 5 comes down to the sea, there were majestic sea vistas on my left with green hills rolling as far as the eye could see to the right.

It was beautiful.  And, vaguely, I was discomfited by it.

It turns out that this is the rainy season here and they are getting a lot of it.  On the one hand, the rain ends a long drought as the last few rainy seasons have been dry.  On the other, massive rains (over 200cm in one 48 hour period) cause their own sort of trouble.  Flooding, power lines down with felled trees, washed out roads.  All of this and more.  Fortunately, it’s dry now but it is still cloudy.  It’s cloudy up and down the Andes from a few hundred miles north of the valley to far in the south of Chile.

I had a choice when planning my last new moon weekend journey to return to San Pedro or back to Hacienda Los Andes.  The Hacienda is much closer, I could drive, which means more gear and no need to stock up upon arrival or check things through the airport.  The cash for the flight and taxi could be put toward telescope rental.  It seemed a no-brainer.

As I write, it’s clear in San Pedro.

There is a chance at some clear patches tonight but there won’t be a perfectly clear sky while I’m here and I’ll likely head back early.  As a wise man once said, “I can’t complain but sometimes I still do.”  In my time in South America, I have planned five astronomy trips covering 13 nights.  I’ve observed for several hours on 9 of them and pulled three all-nighters.  This assumes the most pessimistic view of my current trip, which still has an outside shot at adding a couple of hours.  I’ve also added three “bonus” nights of unplanned observing and imaging that came about, more or less, spontaneously.  That’s a far better record than I normally achieve in North Carolina.  It’s been enough that there is a fair patch of southern sky that I’m now familiar with.

Still, it’s tough not to be pretty disappointed at the moment.  Of all my astronomy doings, and, perhaps, all my South American activity, my first weekend at the Hacienda is at the top of the list.  It’s a beautiful place with a great set up for astronomy.  On my first trip, the place was full of astronomers and staff and it had a great energy.  Now, I am the only guest, which is weird in itself.  I have someone putting out breakfast for me and cooking dinner in the evening.  I hope they’re not maintaining the fire just for me.  I also hope they continue to maintain it.

Anyway, I will now set about writing exams and finishing up some other work that needs doing.  I’ll let you know if it clears off.  If you’re pondering a journey in amateur astronomy, know that there sometimes are clouds.

And Time Passed

I picked up a rental this morning for a weekend sojourn.  The radio was set to 88.9 “El Futuro”.  The two songs I heard over this fine station were Queen’s Dragon Attack and Poison’s Every Rose Has Its Thorn.

Apparently, I was born in the future.

Thinking about past and future brought time to mind, a subject which has come up often in the group recently.  There is debate about whether it seems we’ve been here a long time or if time has passed quickly.  There is, likewise, debate about whether we are ready to go home or not.  And who is debating which side turns on mood.  The only definite is that students who love their homestay are not ready to leave and those that hate it are very much so.  If you’re homel ife is bad, not much else will be good.  And if it’s good, you can take a lot of pain elsewhere.

As for time passing, I go back and forth between feeling like I’ve been here forever and that I just arrived.  When I’m stuck in the middle of a stack of grading, it definitely feels forever. When I’m under the southern sky, I can’t believe I’m about to leave (21 days, not that I’m counting).

Also, it’s winter as of yesterday.  It’s cold and raining today as befits the season.  I’m pretty sure if it were summer and my wife were here, I’d want to stay a bit longer.  However, she and the sun are far, far to the north and, as I write this, I’ll be very glad to get on a plane headed that direction.

Aside from such musings, there isn’t much to report.  I just finished grading a pile of papers from my two classes and the students will have generated another pile Tuesday.  And then it’s all over but the final exams.  This weekend I’ll be back at Hacienda Los Andes for a bit of stargazing weather permitting.  I’ll report in on that as I can.


Where Does It All Come From?

Thank a farmer.  Sure.  But even farmers should have trouble producing citrus in the dead of winter.  And, yet, I passed a couple of juice carts and the fruit and veggie stand at the end of the street is still well stocked.  It clearly isn’t as well stocked as in late summer and prices have gone up but you can still get a variety of fresh fruit and vegetables for a pittance of the cost in the United States.  Where are they growing it?  It’s freezing here.

I went out for juice at lunch as I’m surrounded by sick people in the office.  In that, it’s exactly like being back home.  The last set of midterms and finals coming up make students sick.  And the guy in the office next door has the flu.  And I have an astronomy weekend.  So, hoping that Linus was right, I went out and bought some juice and oranges for lunch.

As good as vitamin C is for the body, the soul needs nourishment as well.  I was happy to hear in the metro this morning a pretty young woman doing a great job on Ave Maria.  I actually stopped and listened to the last half.  Then, the usual guy at my metro stop was playing his steel drum (I have no idea what his instrument is called but it is hauntingly beautiful – editor’s note: it’s called a Hang isn’t really a drum).  I stopped and listened to his work for a few minutes, too.  The combination was an excellent and soothing.

Let’s hope between the vitamins and the music I ward off the cold until finals week.

San Pedro de Atacama, Daytime

Laguna Tebinquinche

The Atacama Desert is frequently called the driest place on Earth.  Occasionally even in scholarly writing, where it is designated the driest non-polar region on Earth.  The desert is a huge area, covering 40,000-plus square miles over the northern third of Chile and extending into both Peru and Bolivia.  Parts of the desert have been dry for over 200 million years and most of it arid for over 3 million years.  There are several spots in the desert where, using the tools found on NASA Mars landers, it has proved impossible to detect life.  The current “driest spot” is a place called Maria Elena South, which is located about 100 km west of Calama. There you will find soil with, very nearly, the same water content as the soil on Mars.

My methodology was unlike that used by geologists; I judged this the driest desert I’ve been to by the fact that, in two trips of four days each, I returned to Santiago each time with cracked, bleeding skin on my hands, something that has never happened in many previous trips to other deserts.  This despite liberal application of various moisturizers left by Mary.

It’s dry.

We had our second program trip to San Pedro de Atacama last week.  The first, you may recall, was to Isla de Pascua in May.  Easter Island is a tropical island and very humid.  So we have visited both the most humid and driest locations in Chile within a month.

We flew into Calama and then rode a bus 90 minutes over a mountain pass at about 10,000 feet to reach San Pedro which is, roughly, southeast of Calama and about 200 km from Maria Elena South.  I’m not sure how dry it really is in San Pedro as the town is located on the Rio San Pedro, a literal oasis in the desert.  It’s not at all surprising to find a desert town on a river.  The surrounding territory is very dry and it would be hard to maintain a household, much less a town in such dry conditions.  But the river – it’s really just a trickle – is sufficient to provide some trees and a little bit of agriculture and allowed San Pedro to survive before tourism boomed and provided a larger source of income to the inhabitants.  Today, a lot of bottled water is trucked into San Pedro every day. Power, I assume, is provided by the solar and wind farms you pass on the way from Calama.  There is a great deal of mining in the area – all through the Atacama, really – so there must be some power plants somewhere.  Individual houses and businesses usually have a few solar cells on the roof as well.

San Pedro lacks paved roads or traffic lights and the packed dirt lanes are very narrow, having been built before anyone imagined someone would be daft enough to drive double-decker tourist buses down them.  At times, in front of our hotel, we could watch several such persons negotiate the lanes simultaneously, winding in and around other tourist buses and vans and a huge populations of dogs. A few birds were flown at such times.

My room.

Hotel Kimal

The lane outside our hotel, which actually occupied space on both sides of the street. My room and the restaurant are to the right and about half the students stayed on the left.Hotel Kimal

Dogs fighting for control of the central plaza.San Pedro de Atacama


I was last in San Pedro for an astronomy trip and stayed south of town at SpaceObs.  You can read about all that here.  My friend, Steve, couldn’t believe we’d be staying in San Pedro as, at a glance, which is about all we gave it due to fatigue and twin colds, it didn’t look full of hotels.  Most of the dirt lanes are lined with thick dried mud walls and, as is common in Chile, there are not large, brightly lit signs advertising businesses.  So you need to look close and, when you do, you find that San Pedro is lousy with hotels, hostels, casas, restaurants and bars.

Our hotel was on the northwest side of the town, right up on the river, and was very nice.  The restaurant was excellent and service top notch.  The town occupies a very small area (just a little larger than my hometown, though with four times the inhabitants) and, so, you could walk pretty much anywhere in a few minutes.

We arrived before noon on Tuesday.  We had a few hours to unpack, moisturize, have some lunch and orient ourselves before we joined a tour bus to visit Valle de la Luna for a couple of hours and then to a few other little canyons around San Pedro before ending up on a mesa north of town to watch the sunset.  It was a beautiful day topped with a fantastic dinner at the Hotel Kimal restaurant.  We had had to be at the airport by 4:45am so at the close of dinner, around 9:30 pm, we all turned in.  Yes, 30 college students a block from a set of bars went to bed at 9:30.

Pictures from the first day.  These are mostly in Valle de la Luna.

Valle de la LunaValle de la LunaP1060135Valle de la LunaP1060148Valle de la LunaP1060164P1060166Vulcan Licancabur

In front of a formation called “Tres Marias” so named by someone who was hallucinating badly.Students in front of Tres Marias, Valle de la LunaP1060177P1060186P1060200Vulcan Licancabur at sunset

The next two days consisted of tours to the Salar de Atacama, a massive salt flat south of town.  Runoff from the Andes filters down to the basin, carrying salts and minerals with it and then evaporates as there is no drainage from the basin.  There is a lot of salt.  There are also lagoons that are highly saline.  On Wednesday, we swam/floated in one.  I nearly chickened out as it was very, very cold both in the air and the water.  You’re probably thinking, “Cold? But it’s the desert!” Yes but a high desert and a week from winter solstice.  The lagoons sit at about 7,500 feet elevation and air flow, directed by the mountains keep the salar relatively cool even in summer.  The water is runoff from melting snow.  To sum up: it’s very cold here in winter.  I finally figured, hey, you only live once and it seemed highly unlikely I would be afforded a second chance to swim in this lagoon.  The salinity is about 25% (for reference, of a sort, the Dead Sea is about 34%).  The attraction is that you can float with little to no effort.

I had packed a swimsuit to South America for two reasons: Easter Island and this lagoon.  Seeing as how I had failed to pack the suit to Easter Island, if I didn’t actually get in the water, having the suit would prove pointless and I hate the idea of having brought something I didn’t use.  So, I stripped down on the salt beach and sprinted past the students wavering on the edge of the water, trying to work up the nerve to get in the very cold water.  This would have been a glorious display of leadership had I not hit a rock about 10 feet in and gone sprawling into the water, heels over head, immediately neglecting the wise advice of our guide to not “get any water in your eyes or mouth.”  I did both and did not enjoy it.  I also lost my sunglasses but the students, shamed by my bravery and pitying my clumsiness entered the water to help me locate them.

The first 30 feet or so from the beach were no more than a few feet deep but then there was a steep ledge and the bottom dropped out.  I have no idea how deep the water was but the temperature dropped at least 15 degrees from an already cold starting point.  However, true to form, floating required no effort.  I could not actually submerge and could lie back on top of the water as if it were an improperly inflated air mattress.  But I couldn’t do it for long.  After about five minutes, I retreated to the salt beach and sat on a towel in the sun until I stopped shivering.  A few students managed to stay 10 or 15 minutes but most just entered, floated for a picture and got out.  As cold as it was, it was wonderful and I’m glad we did it.  Later, as I packed to go home, I would discover my swimsuit completely stiff and covered with white salt.  I’m sorry I have no pictures of that.


We continued the day by touring various other lagoons in the salar and the salar itself.  It was a short day and we were back early enough for a late lunch and some touring of the town.  I bought a highly overpriced copper magnet from a store that specializes in highly overpriced copper things.  There is a lot of copper in the Atacama and many minerals.  The region we were in used to be Bolivia but then nitrates became profitable and Bolivia and Peru tried to push Chilean interests out of the area, which, after all, was theirs. This led to the War of the Pacific which Chile won, surprising even to the Chileans, pushing the Peruvian army all the way back to Lima.  That added nearly a third of present day Chilean territory to the nation and provided them with vast mineral wealth, much of which was exploited by American and European interests. The war also cut Bolivia off from the sea which continues to be a sore point and tensions between Bolivia and Chile periodically flare.

Deserts are amazing places.  Only two of the 30 students (my group plus another intercambio group from an American university) had ever been to a desert before.  A few, very few, did the usual thing of claiming that it was “ugly” or “there is nothing here” – that last always amazes me; unless you’re in a vacuum, there is something there.  In this case there were huge volcanoes, salt flats, lagoons, canyons, etc.  To be sure, it’s nothing like the bucolic beauty of a lush, humid forest but the expansive views, with little to no water (and none potable) combined with the harsh, steep slopes of Andean volcanoes is awe inspiring and humbling.  It is a land in which you clearly are not designed to live.  That feeling is even greater in the Atacama where there is very little in the way of wildlife.  I’m happy to report that the vast majority of the students loved it, which surprised them.

The second day was to be a full day tour, extending to lagoons on the altiplano to the east, above 4,000 meters.  However, we were shut out of this by snow. The week before we arrived, a front had broken through the rain shadow to the west and dumped over an inch of rain on San Pedro.  This is serious business.  The buildings are dried mud, the roads are packed dirt and there is little drainage.  The town basically shut down as roads were impassable and the tours that form the foundation of the economy could not run.  Of course, by the time we arrived, you could not really tell any water had fallen for years.

At Laguna Tebinquinche the highlight was the quiet (when you could get away from 30 students talking) and the reflection of the surrounding mountains in the exceptionally still water.  One of my students snapped this without my knowledge, which is the best way to photograph me.

Laguna Tebinquinche

Laguna Tebinquinche


Laguna Chaxa and the Reserva Nacional Los FlamencosLaguna ChaxaLaguna Chaxa

Ojos de SalarOjos de SalarOjos de SalarOjos de Salar

Laguna TebinquincheLaguna TebinquincheTebinquinche

Laguna Chaxa in Reserva Nacional Los FlamencosLaguna Chaxa

Toconao, ChileToconaoToconaoToconaoToconaoToconao

Laguna Chaxa in Reserva Nacional Los FlamencosLaguna Chaxa in Reserva Nacional Los FlamencosLaguna Chaxa in Reserva Nacional Los Flamencos

Salt crystallizing out of an evaporating puddle.  Laguna Chaxa in Reserva Nacional Los Flamencos

Taken by a student with a long lens.IMG_6654.jpg


More still water in Laguna Chaxa.P1060321Laguna Chaxa in Reserva Nacional Los Flamencos

Socaire, ChileSocaire, Chile

Valle de Jere, near Toconao.Valle de Jere

At high altitude, the front dumped a ton of snow.  I had planned to try to hit El Geysers del Tatio on our last morning but was told they would not be open before we left.  The snow also kept us from visiting the altiplanic lagoons planned for Thursday so we were back in town around 4pm, time enough for me to visit Museo de Meterorito on the east side of town.  A few students had visited on Wednesday afternoon and, I guess, talked about being chemistry students and mentioned me.  I know this because when I walked in, the guy behind the counter looked at me and said, “You must be Dr. Jones!”  That was pretty cool.  He’s a geologist from Washington working the desk at the museum to fund his climbing habit.  The museum itself was small but outstanding.  The owner has been hunting and collecting meteorites from the Atacama for 25 years and has a nice collection.  The displays did a good job of walking you through the types of meteorites, how to locate them and what they tell us.  It is well worth your time if you are ever there.

Museo de Meteorito, San Pedro de AtacamaMuseo de Meteorito, San Pedro de AtacamaMuseo de Meteorito, San Pedro de AtacamaMuseo de Meteor, San Pedro de AtacamaMuseo de Meteor, San Pedro de Atacama

I had a bad half hour at the start of dinner on Thursday.  I had been trying for a couple of days to book a van to take us back out to Valle de la Luna to finish a hike we’d started on the tour but not had time to complete.  I had struggled with the language but finally thought I’d made progress. I was, I thought, to meet the driver at 7:30 pm to finalize plans.  On my way to do that, I ran into the lady I’d made the arrangements with.  She said there was no problem with tomorrow’s van but that SpaceObs was looking for me.  I was evidently supposed to pay them by 3pm for that night’s tour.  But I hadn’t seen the email, having limited connectivity and being busy diving in salty lagoons. She was “this close” to cancelling us.  Alain’s wife had come looking for us because I’d told them our hotel for pickup.  I was probably fortunate in that I knew Alain and had exchanged many emails with him.  My guess is that had that not been the case, they’d have simply cancelled on us, justifiably.

So it was that I quickly forked over half a million pesos, which is not nearly as much as it sounds like but is significantly more than I enjoyed, and confirmed with the desk that we were good for the van the next morning.  It was close to our having no planned activities for the final 24 hours.  Fortunately, the students were good for it and I was paid back before heading out that night.

You can read about the star tour here.

After getting to bed a little after 1am, I was up at 7 for breakfast, checkout and then the van.  Eight of us headed back to Valle de la Luna to finish a hike that looked really good.  I had understood our guide to say that there were three more miles past where we stopped.

I did not understand him correctly.  It was beautiful but it was no more than half a mile past where we stopped the day before to the end of the trail. By end I mean we came to a ledge with a 100 meter dropoff.  But it was okay as it gave us time to walk back toward the park entrance and explore a salt cavern the tour had skipped.

Valle de la Luna, San Pedro de AtacamaValle de la Luna, San Pedro de AtacamaValle de la Luna, San Pedro de AtacamaValle de la Luna, San Pedro de AtacamaValle de la Luna, San Pedro de AtacamaP1060388Valle de la Luna, San Pedro de AtacamaP1060400P1060403Valle de la Luna, San Pedro de AtacamaValle de la Luna, San Pedro de AtacamaP1060409

Me in the salt cavern on my first trip here.Valle de la Luna, San Pedro de Atacama

Once we were back in town, I took one more stroll around town and grabbed a bite to eat at a little restaurant off the central plaza while I listened to a group playing what I assume is traditional music of the indigenous people. It didn’t look like a tour and I saw no basket for donations.  Just some folks playing music. I also spent time fighting dogs and birds off of my lunch.

And then we were off, heading back over the mountain pass to Calama.  I think most of us slept on that drive.  When we got back to Santiago it had been raining all day and many streets were flooded.  It was a shocking contrast.

The consensus seems to be that the Atacama is the best trip we’ve done and those who’ve travelled extensively in Chile say it’s their favorite part of the country.  I’m clearly biased in that it is an outstanding place for astronomy and I’ve always loved deserts.  If you’re an urban dweller or more fond of wet and wooded places you should give it a chance.

Astronomy Outreach, Part 2

I am just returned from the driest place on the planet to a fairly ferocious winter storm dumping loads of water on Santiago.  My students report via the group chat that their rides home have been very long.  I had the opportunity to make a fool of myself by asking our Uber driver what the lights in the sky were.  He clearly didn’t like us and  he just glared at me and turned back to face the crowded streets.

It was lightning.

I will have much more to say about our program trip to the Atacama later.  For now, I wanted to relate our astronomy exploits.  I last discussed mixing astronomy and students here.  The Atacama is famous for its skies.  It is high and dry, existing in a rain shadow from the Andes to the east and coastal range to the west.  San Pedro and its surroundings record over 300 clear nights per year.  The dry, thin air makes it an excellent location for microwave astronomy as well as visual astronomy.  Several world class observatories are located on Andean altiplanos.  And amateurs, like me, come from all over to observe the southern sky.

You can also book “astronomy tours” at about half a dozen shops in town.  Where Steve and I stayed, in April, is one such place.  I’m biased as I know the owner of SpaceObs, Alain, is an astronomer and I have reason to believe that some of the other outfits are not stellar (ha! I crack myself up).  The advertisement in town for SpaceObs, the place I stayed with Steve, is low key and to the point.  Many of the others show photos that show objects in a way you will never see with the eye and a few put telescopes out in front of their shops that are “real” but very poorly maintained.  I’ve heard other talk.  If you have questions, let me know.

Suffice to say, I wanted to go to Alain’s place for a tour while visiting with my students.  I opened it up to the students and virtually all of them wanted to go.  Some didn’t want to pay the fee (20,000 pesos, about $30) and asked if I would take them out for my own tour the night before.  If you know me, or if you’ve ever been under a dark sky with me, you know it can be hard to shut me up about astronomy, so, poor kids, the students got their wish.

I led a group of about 20 students down a dirt lane (they’re all dirt lanes in San Pedro) until the streetlights stopped…

Two asides:

      One: San Pedro is much more brightly lit than I’d expect for a town that touts astrotourism so highly. It isn’t bad, per se, and the town is small.  At SpaceObs, about six miles south of town, there is a minimal light dome but it is definitely there. 

           Two: In addition to my students, there were ten students from another fine American university with us in San Pedro.  Many of these students joined us for the tours.

We ended up spending about an hour dodging cars and bikes and dogs as I gave a naked eye tour of the sky, tried to explain celestial mechanics, gritted my teeth through astrology questions and gave at least a dozen students their first look at the Milky Way.

Another aside:

Man, can you imagine being 20 and not having seen the Milky Way?  Seriously, everyone, turn your damned lights out once in awhile.

I then passed around the binoculars and groups drifted back to the hotel, which was about half a mile away.  The sky wasn’t that great and I couldn’t tell if it was being in town, high clouds or not being able to fully dark adapt.  It may well have been all three.  Still, it was far better than most students had seen.

The next night we, a group of 28, went to SpaceObs.  It was farther from town than I remembered and well away from the lights of San Pedro.  Alain gave a nice 45 minute introduction to the sky that was much better organized and delivered than mine the previous night.  Fortunately, though, our run through the night before helped them answer questions he asked and, therefore, to look good.  Always nice to have your students look good.

Alain’s naked eye tour was really outstanding.  It covered a lot of ground in terms of how objects appear to move in the sky, nicely mixing humor, philosophy and everyday experience to both keep the students engaged and make his points.  His green laser pointer was so much better than my beam flashlight (I was not able to find a green laser before leaving).  He kept the students attention for almost an hour in cold weather after a heavy dinner.

We then moved to the telescopes and got lucky.  SpaceObs has a pad with about eleven (I think that is what he said) scopes.  Two, both 12-inch Meade Schmidt-Cassegrains, were trained on Jupiter and Saturn, respectively.  A mix of SCTs and Dobs were pointed at various deep-sky objects and he had a nice variety, covering most of the types you can see in the sky.

First up was, amusingly to me, the Ring Nebula.  The Ring is a beautiful, and prototypical, planetary nebula and is clearly a ring, a little ghostly donut, in the eyepiece.  A planetary nebula is formed when a star sloughs off its outer layers in old age.  The Ring is also quite far north, passing nearly exactly overhead in Winston-Salem.  In other words, there is no reason to fly to Chile to see it. But, if you’re going to show astronomy neophytes a planetary nebula, it is the one to choose.

We also saw the Jewel Box (open cluster), Omega Centauri (globular cluster), the Lagoon and Eta Carina nebulae (emission nebula) and the Sombrero galaxy.  Thus, he covered the major types of object.  Several students, true to form, pissed me off by asking why the Lagoon was red.  You see, we humans typically don’t see color at night, when we mostly rely on the rods in our eyes for vision.  The rods are colorblind and give much poorer resolution than the cones which we use in bright light.  That is why our vision at night returns greyish blurry images.  You see fine at night if you adapt to the dark.  But you don’t see as well as during the day.  But younger eyes do often work well enough to show color on some objects through the scope.  Both the Lagoon and Eta Carina nebulae were reported as red by students who had no idea to expect them to be so.  It’s an accurate observation. And one that I, in my 40s, have no hope of replicating.

But the real treat was Saturn.  Jupiter was impressive enough, though it was sinking low in the west.  Two moons were nearly touching and some detail in the bands were visible.  Saturn was at opposition the night we visited.  That is, it was directly opposite the Sun as seen from Earth and, therefore, about as close as it will come during the course of the year.  When we viewed it, it was 81 degrees above the horizon or only 9 degrees from zenith.  Objects at zenith are seen through the least amount of air possible.  Also, Saturn just went through its own solstice so its rings are as wide open as they ever get. The seeing was decent and we were observing at, I would guess, around 300x.  The Cassini division was sharp and visible all the way around the planet. There was a definite dimming on the outer edge.  There was a clear band with some mottling just above the rings.  Including Titan, five satellites were visible.  The students were amazed.  A group of ten stayed outside even after Alain announced tea and hot chocolate would be served inside and retired there himself.  I’ve seen Saturn thousands of times over my life and can clearly remember a dozen or so times.  This certainly makes the list and may be the finest view I’ve had.  Which was fortuitous, given I’d invited all my students to drop serious coin on the outing.

The moon rose over the Andes about a quarter to midnight and Alain got a scope aimed at it.  Students quickly rotated through as we watched the silhouette of the mountains against the moon.  Once it was up a few degrees, Alain helped one of the students snap a picture using her phone, which is shown below.  She was wildly happy with it.

Moon from Atacama with iPhone
Last quarter moon photographed with iPhone from SpaceObs.

Once we were all inside and sipping hot liquids, Alain took questions and grew philosophical.  He was quite open about his career, why he thinks it important to study the astronomy and how to use the stars to advance one’s dating life.  Long past the time we were to have departed and as he was about to go into more detail on the last point, his wife came out and told him to let us go.  We were sad to leave but quite happy and satisfied with the tour.  I was thanked enthusiastically and sincerely for organizing and I caught several students the next day using the sky app he had shown them.


It was a great night and one I think we’ll all remember for a long time.  The sight of the center of the Milky Way standing high in the east and the excitement displayed at the view and the views through the telescopes was very moving for me.  On top of that, it confirmed, in my mind, two truths about sharing astronomy:

  1. Show newcomers Saturn.  There is nothing in the sky as awe-inspiring and innately beautiful as Saturn.  Additionally, despite them being “easy” to see, people are amazed that they’re real and visible.
  2.  A clear, dark sky is unavoidably moving.  Amateur astronomers complain frequently that the public seems to have “lost interest” in astronomy.  Nothing is further from the truth.  They have just lost access.  Almost anyone will fall a little in love with the view if the sky conditions are favorable.


Okay, soon I’ll write up our other activities from the Atacama.  And I’ll report on how many pairs of underwear I wound up with.










Balance and Open Doors

I had a terrible night’s sleep on Saturday after the NBA party and impromptu observing session.  So I spent all day Saturday in my building.  It’s the first day in South America that I didn’t go out.  However, I did discover that the door to the roof is open.  I spent some time up looking at the city from the unexpected vantage point and then took the scope up for another hour long session in which I viewed Jupiter and Saturn as well as Omega Centauri and the Jewel Box again.  The sky was very not good.  Lots of smog and high clouds to go along with the light pollution.  But, still, an hour looking through a scope is better than most other hours.

I also had occasion to think about balance.  If doubt anyone remembers but I wrote once about cutting my basal insulin.  I wear an insulin pump that mimics an actual pancreas in that it secretes a bit of insulin constantly.  That is known as the basal rate.  One requires less insulin the more active one is and I am more active in South America than in the United States.


Because in the United States I can drive pretty much everywhere and, if I choose, need not walk more than a couple of hundred feet in any given day.  Here, at minimum I walk half a mile to the metro and then half a mile to the office.  So that is, at minimum, two miles of walking per day.  I usually do more.  In Buenos Aires I was clocking about four miles per day on average.  I’m over three here.  And I hit seven or eight a couple of times per week.  Hence, I need less insulin and I knew this would happen so I cut back by 75% when I arrived in Argentina.  I cut back to 70% a few weeks in and I haven’t looked back.

Until Saturday.  When I didn’t walk more than 20 feet without stopping all day.  Okay, discovering the roof was open required climbing two flights of stairs.  I could see this in my blood glucose measurements which were high.  Like the roof.  You’d think that it would be no problem, just take some more insulin, eat less or get some exercise.  Me being the genius scientist who knows you should never change just one variable when you can take several, I did all this on Sunday and ended up enjoying a nice medicinal strawberry crepe with powdered sugar.

The real trouble is that once you break the equilibrium of good blood glucose control, it isn’t necessarily trivial to re-establish it.  I had a reasonably good day and am now preparing for our trip to the Atacama Desert.  So, packing a few extra test strips, a full bottle of insulin and a bushel of M&Ms.  Don’t worry Mom and Dad, it’s good.

Oh, and we had an earthquake last night.

This space will be quiet for a few days until we’re back from the desert.

View from the roof.  Someone has a heater.








Astronomy Outreach

The little fiesta for Game 4 went well and my Cavalier fans went home happy.  I had fun telling them how the Warriors were going to come back.  In the first half I believed it.  In the second I was just having fun with them.  (If you missed it or are not a fan, the Warriors, who would win the league championship if they won last night, were 15-20 points behind for most of the game but they have a history of winning such games at the last minute.  If you’re not a fan, it’s not important.)

The beginning of the night really took me back to my days working in the Bobcat Grill in my home town.  I fried chicken for the group, each of whom brought something – a potluck snack.  I missed most of the first quarter as I was frying in batches in my small kitchen.  Frying things tends to make the cook smell like frying things so the smell, a powerful memory trigger, took me back.  Then I would bring a batch out and return to the kitchen.  By the time I got the next batch out, the previous was gone.  What really took me back was how efficiently my hardwork was converted to empty plates outside my sight.  I remember Friday and Saturday nights at the grill where I cooked steadily for hours and, yet, no food accumulated.  I realize that is the point but it is always odd to see.

After the game, I had “promised” the group that I would take them out to show them the Moon and Saturn, which at midnight here are virtually straight overhead.  I put promised in quotes because I suspect I was more excited about doing this than they were.  I’ve had a few students ask to have a look through the scope but none of them were in last night’s group.  We have a group touring in the south and another who took a trip with their homestay family.  These absent students make up the bulk of those who have shown interest in my constant banging on about astronomy.

So, we tidied up a very little bit and headed downstairs.  I’m pretty much in the center of Santiago, under a layer of smog, surrounded by miles of lights.  The Moon and Saturn are two of the very few objects that we could see well.  We went to the little parking area behind the apartment building and found a reasonably dark spot.  They were entralled.  I had suspected they would be.  The Moon is an incredible view through any scope and people who are unprepared are blown away by the fact that they can actually see craters.  Of course you can see a lot more than craters and they each fought to get a second look.  I was home, so in no hurry.

Then I moved to Saturn, last night just a few degrees from the Full Moon.  I have a telescope designed for wide-field view.  I didn’t intentionally do that but that was the mirror I got and it made for a much more compact scope.  Each mirror (or lens) has two important properties that are dictated by their shape: aperture and focal length.  Aperture is how wide the mirror is – my scope here is 8″ (20cm) in diameter – which controls how much light the telescope collects.  The bigger then mirror/lens, the fainter the object that can be seen and the greater the resolution (how much detail).

Focal length is how far from the mirror the focal point is.  The mirror is parabolic (concave) and focus light to a point.  This is how the scope works: take light covering 8″ and focus it so that it fits through your pupil which is just a few millimeters in diameter.  My telescope has a focal length of 32″ (80cm).  The lower the ratio between focal length and aperture, generally, the wider the field of view will be.  Field of view is simply how much sky one sees through the eyepiece.  Another way of saying it is, the lower the ratio of focal length to aperture, the lower the magnification will be.

My focal ratio (focal length/aperture) is, you have surmised, 4.

That is very low.  And, so, I can see a huge swath of sky but at fairly low power.  This is exactly the opposite of what you’d want for the Moon and, especially, Saturn where you’d want high power so as to see the very small planet in greater detail.  However, if the focal length were longer, the poles would have to be longer, creating a longer moment arm, necessitating sturdier construction, meaning a heavier, bulkier scope.  Short focal length is better for my purposes with this scope.

You use the tool you have, so we took a look at Saturn.

I was pleased to see that the view was pretty nice.  I was able to get to a pleasing view at 100x with my zoom eyepiece (one controls magnification via the eyepiece).  I stepped back to give the students a look.  We ended up on this one for a long time as they were more impressed by Saturn than the Moon.  That is, again, a general trend. Saturn is amazing.  It is intrinsically beautiful.  I’ve never encountered someone who doesn’t think Saturn is pretty.  Also, most people think the rings are some tiny thing that can only be viewed with huge, professional grade telescopes.  That misses how lousy telescopes were when people first turned them on the sky and discovered the rings.  My little Dob would, up until the mid-18th century,  have been the greatest telescope on the planet.

In any case, we spent quite a while on Saturn only being interrupted by the night watchman for the building who came to see what we were doing.  We were set up right under a security camera.  I was disappointed that he refused a look.

The students had sharp eyes.  They picked out the Cassini division in the rings without suggestion.  They spotted three moons, which blew me away.  I had picked them out but was surprised they did.  Two of the students claimed to see them easily.  These were pretty good observations for an 8″ scope at 100x.  The seeing was pretty good (meaning the sky was steady) but, more importantly, it meant they were paying close attention to the view in the eyepiece.  Saturn will do that to you.

I finished by showing them the Jewel Box, which was better than I’d thought under our crappy skies and then Alpha Centauri which surprised because it is double.  Before turning in, the students asked for another look at Saturn so we finished there.

I have long thought that Saturn is the object everyone should see first through a telescope.  I’m probably biased because it’s the first object I remember seeing using the C14 at Southwestern observatory where I grew up.  Of course, I also saw Jupiter and NGC 4565 (yes, I actually clearly remember it).  I was seven and hooked.  But Saturn is the one that stood out.  If you’ve seen Saturn in a telescope you know what I mean.  If you haven’t, you owe it to yourself.

The beauty of the Moon, Saturn and Jupiter is that they offer the untrained eye a wealth of beauty and detail that other astronomical objects simply don’t.  There is no need to use averted vision or exercise patience for stable seeing.  Their beauty is plain to see.  One does not learn to cook by first attempting a souffle, one makes a sandwich.  A few good ingredients between two slices of fresh bread and you have something that anyone can make and all will enjoy.  If you acquire the taste, you can work your way up.  Thus it is with viewing objects through a telescope.  Start with objects that are easy to see and which will please even the most jaded soul when viewed with a crude telescope under a lousy sky.  If they acquire a taste, they can come back for more subtle flavors.

Having a look at the Full Moon at our pristine observing site.


Moving to Saturn.  This is a photo I took back home with my “big” scope.  The Cassini division is the black division that splits the rings in two (there are many divisions – check out the photos from the Cassini spacecraft which was named for the discoverer of the division in the ring).


Having a look at Saturn.