I did not make much of a secret, nor could I have for those who know me well, that a big part of the appeal of a work assignment in the southern hemisphere was access to the southern sky. The Earth is round(ish), you see, and so if you’re on one side of it you can’t see what is visible from the other side.
Additionally, Chile has much to offer the astronomer. I’ve written about the inversion layer that stretches much of the length of the nation. The Humboldt current, just offshore, brings very cold water from the Antarctic, which cools the air above it. This leaves a smooth layer of warmer air sliding over that cool layer. It also traps out a lot of dust and grime, both natural and unnatural, close to the ground. Now, if you’re under the inversion layer, that stinks. Sometimes literally. But if you’re above, it provides very clear, dry air. The trick is to get above it. Fortunately, Chile is a very, very steep country and not too far inland, you can be standing on mountaintops well above the inversion layer. The result is that Chilean peaks have frequent clear, steady skies.
This is not lost on astronomers and many of the world’s largest and most advanced observatories, in all wavelength regimes, are located (or are being built) in high places in Chile. Amateurs follow along and dream of coming here. Travel for astronomy is fraught with peril. Not the “you might die” kind of peril but the “you might spend a lot of money to look at the bottoms of clouds” kind. Chile offers, perhaps, the best bet in terms of clarity. The altiplano outside San Pedro and Antofagasta receive as many as 330 clear nights per year. Of course, that still leaves something like 10% of nights that aren’t clear but your odds are much better in the Atacama than, say, Peru. Or Argentina. (The Australian outback, likewise, is competitive in this game).
I’ve written here about why I enjoy viewing the sky as much as I do. My family will tell you it isn’t a mere pleasure but something I’m driven to do. Sometimes to an annoyting extent. There are, believe it or not, a lot of stories in the amateur astronomy community of people losing everything in trying to spend every clear night out with ever increasing expenditures of time, money and energy. Pretty much everyone loves a dark, clear view of the universe with the naked eye or telescope. But very few end up drawn to it as amateur astronomers are. I admit that at times, it may not be healthy. But, mostly, the sky serves as a constant bearing in a swirling, chaotic life.
All of which is to say: I would have come to Chile to see the sky at some point. It was very convenient that my employer offered the chance to spend a lot of time down here. I had expected to get out under a dark sky at New Moon twice, maybe three times. I ended up logging 16 nights of observing, only being clouded out 4 nights. That is far better odds, and far more observing in the given time frame, than I usually log at home in the southeast of the United States.
Probably my best write up of one of these efforts is here: Observations from Hacienda Los Andes.
So that mission was a success. I now feel I know the southern sky, at least the bits that were well placed while I was here (Earth, alas, circles the Sun) pretty well. Not as well as the lanes of the universe I’ve been haunting since I was 12 but well enough.
And now the pictures.
Wide angle shot of the Milky Way behind a windmill at my Airbnb south of Buenos Aires.
Crux, the Southern Cross, and Carina with a 50mm lens.
Small Magellanic Cloud with a 50mm lens. Bright blob below it is the globular cluster 47 Tucanae.
Though it’s hard to imagine now, my two nights in the pampas were in the middle of summer. It was hot, even at midnight, and the fireflies were out in force. I happened to catch them in frame twice. Most of the photos you see on this page are “stacked”. I took many (30-150) 1-2 minute pictures and then had a computer stack them all; basically, each picture was added together with some digital calibration (ask if you’re interested in detail). The result is a picture akin to what you’d get with a single very long exposure. In any case, the two pictures below are single shots where a firefly asked for a mate while on camera. Cheeky devils.
I next went to the Hacienda Los Andes in the Hurtado Valley outside La Serena. This was a fantastic weekend at a wonderful inn that keeps it dark and rents telescopes. My visual observations were made with the 12.5″ Portaball shown below.
It’s hard to share visual observations but the best way is by sketching.
Wide angle (18mm lens) shot of the Milky Way centered on Crux, which is upside down just to the lower left of the Coal Sack, a dark nebula dead center in this frame.
50mm shot of the Eta Carina nebula.
50mm shot of the Large Magellanic Cloud.
200mm shot of the Rho Ophiuchi complex. Antares is the bright orange star lower right.
200mm shot of the Large Magellanic Cloud.
200mm shot of the Eta Carina nebula.
Mosaic of four 18mm shots of the Milky Way. Orion is in upper right.
200mm shot of NGC 5128, Centaurus A. This is a crop. This is also not a good way to approach astrophotography but you dance with them that brung you.
Cropped shot of Omega Centauri, from the same image as above.
I next went to SpaceObs outside San Pedro de Atacama with a friend and observing buddy from home. I shot this with a 200mm lens waiting for dark.
Our setup at SpaceObs. My 8-inch travel Dob is in the foreground. Behind it is the 20″ reflector we rented and then the lodge where we stayed. Volcan Licancabur is in the far background.
50mm shot of Crux and the Coalsack.
Another 200mm shot of Eta Carina; remember how I described “stacking” images. I’d hoped to add to the above photos of Eta Carina and (see below) the Rho Ophiuchi complex. Unfortunately, I didn’t get the fields exactly lined up and the two sets couldn’t be combined. Grr.
35mm shot of Scorpius and the Milky Way.
Soon after Steve and I went to the Atacama, Mary and I went to Easter Island. It isn’t a great place for observing due to all the clouds and humidity but I managed a couple of shots of stars with Moai.
Hacienda Los Andes was closed in May so I booked a room in a very small town, Rivadavia, in the Elqui Valley. I managed two nights with the little scope and this shot of the “Dark Doodad” a neat little dark nebula in Musca.
I was back at the Hacienda in June but, safe to say, I should have returned to the Atacama. The Atacama is a tougher trip (longer and more expensive) but, in winter, is much more likely to be clear. As it was, I was mostly clouded out at the Hacienda. I did manage these two shots through their 8-inch refractor. The first is Omega Centauri and the next two are a) zoom on the Jewel Box and b) the full frame.
In Chile, the universe gives a lot more than it takes. The week following my return from the cloudy trip to the Hacienda was clear in Santiago and I got out to Cajon del Maipo twice and recorded these images along with over a dozen hours at the eyepiece.
Small Magellanic Cloud and 47 Tucanae with the 200mm lens.
Emission nebula IC 4628 and many star clusters including NGC 6231 (bright clump center left) with the 200mm lens.
Open cluster M7 with the 200mm lens.
Nebulae M8 (the Lagoon, center) and M20 (Trifid, lower right) with the 200mm lens.
So that’s it. I had actually hoped to maybe squeeze one more night in this week but it’s to snow at my spot along the Maipo and I really don’t want to miss that plane.
If you’re interested in more astrophotos, click here: astrobin.