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.