Today brought a long wait to an end because this was the day that we were due to visit Paranal. I wouldn’t be surprised if you haven’t heard of it, for all it is is a mountain in the Atacama Desert here in Chile, which in itself is hardly exciting. However it’s what’s atop this mountain that is so incredibly exciting; the European Southern Observatory (ESO). We had very generously been given the opportunity to come up to Paranal to see the installation and stay the night, and we couldn’t have been more excited!
However, we weren’t there yet, and we still had to negotiate a 120km drive out into a very remote part of the desert. So, leaving Mejillones bright and early, we headed back out onto the PanAm which we were expecting would lead us to the required turn off. After some time on the road though, we were still on the PanAm and, according to our odometer, we should have reached the turning by now; we were lost, it transpired!
Despite the remoteness and almost complete lack of traffic, we managed to find a trucker who pointed us in the right direction, and it was only after 30km of backtracking that we managed to reach the turn off. And this is where we began climbing; from near sea level we climbed to a height of over 2,600m as we neared the observatory; the excitement among the team was palpable!
If you consider what an observatory needs for good results such as clean unpolluted air, very low light from the surroundings, dry air, and good weather, you realise how ideal Paranal’s location is. Located in one of the driest places in the world where, in some places, it hasn’t rained for over 500 years, and around 100km from any population, there is no better place to have a telescope! In fact, as we were climbing up the steep but well paved mountain road, we could feel how dry the air was becoming, and we could actually see the sky brightening to an incredibly deep blue…this really was the purest of skies!
Finally we reached the top and we could get our first glimpse of the scale of this operation; perched high atop a peak around 300m higher was the observation platform containing a 8 of the latest astronomical instrumentation available to man. It really was an awe inspiring sight, and it was only about to get more interesting as we explored it later! For now however, we needed to register with security after which we were invited to lunch here by our contact here, Gonzalo.
You may be wondering where, on a barren desert mountain such as this, one would go about procuring lunch. The answer in this case was the Residencia; a building functioning as home to the 150 or so people that work here, as well as a hotel to guests. The design of this building warrants a blog in itself; built into the mountain with the front facing out over the mountains in the fore and ocean in the distance, a more spectacular location could not be imagined. Walking inside just further enhanced this feeling, and it honestly felt like you had stepped into the future!
From the rocky desert outside, you walk in to be confronted by a living rainforest in the centre of the hotel! A glass dome spans the lobby under which sits a whole host of trees and tropical shrubbery. The whole place had an extremely hi tech feel, and if you need any more proof as to its incredible nature, you only have to watch the last James Bond; this was a set for the final scene in the “Eco Hotel” in Quantum of Solace! We were jumping with excitement like 4 year olds on a sugar high, and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one humming the James Bond theme tune as we were welcomed to the hotel!
We were given the keys to our individual rooms; the first time on the trip that we were each sleeping in our own room (quite a pleasant change I have to say) after which we headed over to the canteen with Gonzalo for lunch. Not only was the food delicious and plentiful, but it also gave food for thought (no pun intended!) as to how they get everything up here. Apparently they have 40,000 litres of water delivered daily, as well as regular shipments of food, gas, and other necessities. All this is brought by truck from the port city of Antofagasta, over 100km away, in a massive logistics effort to keep this scientific outpost fully functioning.
After lunch we had some time where we demonstrated the car to some assembled press, and this was by far the most surreal place we had ever driven the car! Instead of driving it on the road or in a car park as is customary for such demos, we were driving in the space between the telescopes right at the top of the mountain! Since the crash in Quito, we have been a little nervous about demonstrating the car in front of a crowd, but imagine how we felt with €300 million worth of telescopes around us! However, nothing went wrong and after around an hour the car was taken back down to base camp, some 300m further down the mountain in order to be put on charge.
With the car charging next to the observatory’s workshop, we joined some senior members of ESO for a tour of one of the Unit Telescopes; a giant 8.2m telescope operating in the visible and infrared wavelengths. The degree of precision and quality of engineering used in the construction of these giant machines was staggering; honestly, you felt your breath slip away when viewing the shear magnitude of operations here. I would love to go into further detail here, but I think you would be better off visiting their excellent website at www.eso.org for more information.
We were able to see the telescope swivel into position ready for the night’s observing, and it’s amazing how this 350 ton machine whirs into position without the faintest sign of overshooting; this is engineering and science taken to an unimaginable level, and we all felt like we had stepped into a far more advanced world than the one in which we conduct our normal day to day lives. We think our laptops or mobile phones are technologically advanced, but they are the equivalent to comparing a horse and carriage to a space shuttle when compared with the tech employed in these telescopes! Truly remarkable.
After having had a demonstration on how the telescope mechanically operates, and seeing the general setup, we went outside to view the sunset. We were surrounded by mountains on one side, and the ocean on the other, and as the sun dipped below the horizon, we were treated to a dazzling display of colours. However, the surprises didn’t end there as we were then told to look at a different point in the sky where we could all see Jupiter shining bright! Yet another sight which none of us had ever seen before. It was amazing how fast the temperature plummeted as soon as the sun when down, and before long we were shivering in the desert cold.
At this point, Gonzalo invited us to dinner which was, by this stage, very welcome. So, as the light began to fade, we made our way 300m down the mountain and 3km away to the Residencia eagerly anticipating dinner, but even more so the pure night sky that would await us afterwards!
Upon entering the Residencia, we got an idea of just how important it is to keep light pollution to an absolute minimum. That glass dome in the lobby that I mentioned earlier was completely sealed to prevent any light from escaping, as were all the windows as well. In fact, so important is it to have complete darkness, that ESO have liaised with the city of Antofagasta 100km away to change their entire street lighting system to ensure that there is no interference with the telescopes. The same was done with the mining companies operating in the region, and to complete the process, aeroplanes landing into Antofagasta at night are routed miles away from Paranal; a truly multifaceted effort!
Dinner was, once again, a delicious affair, and we enjoyed the company of several ESO employees who all had fascinating stories to tell. It was abundantly clear just how intelligent the people here are; everybody, be they the engineers, scientists or technicians were doing something absolutely groundbreaking each and every night. This was a place of scientific discovery, and the excitement around this is evident everywhere.
After dinner we went outside to view the night sky and to have a tour through the control room. For the umpteenth time today we were, once again, blown away. I have never seen a night sky like this! After letting one’s eyes adjust over a few minutes, you are actually able to see in this darkness due entirely to the brightness of the stars above. The word infinity comes to mind when you stare upwards and the number of stars appears endless. So unpolluted and clear is the air that you can view the Milky Way with the stars so densely packed that it looks like a nearby cloud. We stared in absolute wonderment!
After a period of star staring, we headed back up to the observatory to the control centre where we were able to see a team controlling a telescope and carrying out research. The equipment they have is clearly state of the art, and they tried their best to explain what exactly they were doing with these telescopes. I have to profess that much of it was a little beyond our collective knowledge, but from what we gleaned we could tell that there was truly remarkable work being conducted out here.
By this time it was midnight, and seeing as we are not astronomers who lead a nocturnal life, we were yearning for bed! So, back to the Residencia we went, and we each disappeared into our respective rooms which, in themselves, were wonderful pieces of architecture; comfortable and well designed with particular attention paid to the lighting which was very soft to prevent a strain on the eyes after coming in from pitch black darkness.
As I slipped slowly to sleep, I couldn’t help but feel an immense privilege for being invited up here to this amazing place. Perhaps I don’t get across very well just how unique this place is, and certainly I could write pages more, but take it from me; this is really one of those once in a lifetime experiences. This is the best man has to offer at this time; a true pinnacle of technology and teamwork has been achieved in order to probe the vast reaches of our universe, and you can’t help but wonder what they are going to discover next!