Posts from the ‘South America’ category

Cerro Pachón: on the tall shoulders of the Chilean Andes

It’s a long road to a latitude of 30 degrees South to stand at an elevation of 9000 feet up on the mountainous spine of South America.

Over a period of 11 years, I visited telescopes in Chile to collect research data, before I moved to Chile to live and work there for 5 years. This is a brief look at the journey an astronomer makes to telescopes in Chile.

Domes on ridge of Cerro Pachón, Región de Coquimbo, Chile, fotoeins.com

SOAR and Gemini telescopes on the ridge of Cerro Pachón: view from Cerro Tololo (HL)

Recovering astronomer

I’m both amused and nostalgic for having once been immersed in the “game”: professional research astronomy, a seriously competitive human enterprise carried out in the open arena with public money. To obtain research data, I submitted and chased successful proposals to telescopes at various locations around the world; some of those telescopes are in low earth orbit. Some success meant becoming accustomed to remote locations, beautiful scenery, and the isolation.

The best places to build world-class research telescopes are not necessarily conducive to living conditions. A variety of stations scattered around mountain tops track weather conditions over a period of years. Telescopes are built at locations where there is little rain or moisture; where there is minimal effect of light pollution from neighbouring urbanized areas; and where the air flow overhead is smooth, horizontal, and laminar, producing the sharpest possible image-quality for the study of very faint astronomical sources, from low-mass stars in our own galaxy to the most distant galaxies.

These conditions are met in Chile. A number of telescopes have been built by a number of European, North American, and South American nations in the Andes between northern and north-central Chile along a stretch of the Atacama desert.

Road between Cerro Tololo and Cerro Pachón, Región de Coquimbo, Chile, fotoeins.com

The mirror’s view (HL)

For most, the trip to Chile is neither trivial nor short. Most fly the overnight red-eye flight into the national capital city of Santiago (SCL), followed by a short one-hour hop to La Serena (LSC).

Leaving the airport and heading east, Ruta 41 winds its way into the Elqui river valley. Foothills appear taller, with mountains in the distance signaling the border region with Argentina. Driving past the dam and artificial lake, road signage marks a turnoff onto a dirt road heading south. The manned gate controls the flow of approved vehicles in and out of the area.

I’ve been here countless times. If I’m in the back seat, I slip into a snooze, and every straight-away, bump, turn and bend in the road will be as familiar in sleep as I am awake. I might see a few vehicles in the other direction, returning to La Serena. If I’m lucky to have the wheel, I’ll stop at various places to enjoy the view.

Sometimes, it’s me, the vehicle, and a lot of red-brown dust and dirt. I’m surrounded by smooth brown round-top hills, with jagged snow-capped peaks farther to the east. I’m accompanied by the whistling of the desert breeze; the only other company is cactus, scrub, and brush. This is either blessing for being in a remote part of the world or curse in the solitude for miles around.

Eventually, the graded dirt road comes to a ‘T': one section heads north to telescopes at Cerro Tololo, while the other section leads south to Cerro Pachón.

Road between Cerro Tololo and Cerro Pachón, Región de Coquimbo, Chile, fotoeins.com

Road splits to Cerro Tololo or Cerro Pachón (HL)

Observing isn’t just about the sky

I have to be aware of the road and surroundings; it’s dangerous to underestimate the desert. Knowledge of the landscape is easier over time, and years of living in La Serena have secured memories more firmly.

It’s the middle of the desert, and if there’s an accident, days might pass before encountering another vehicle. Every vehicle must have working two-way radio with gate control. Sometimes the desert reaches out and kills; accidents have claimed vehicles and lives. These dirt roads can be unforgiving with slippery switchbacks, blind curves, and sudden dips.

Driving can be “breathtakingly entertaining”, especially at night. Winter snow and ice on the unpaved surface can be challenging, and there’s several hundred meters of drop beyond the unguarded shoulder on the other side of the road.

The domes finally appear, indicating our arrival at the observatory. Up on Pachón, walking is a little slower, breathing a little more laboured, the air a little thinner. I’m at 2700 metres or about 9000 feet above sea level.

Cerro Tololo, from Cerro Pachón, Región de Coquimbo, Chile, fotoeins.com

Northwest in late-afternoon light from Cerro Pachón: only road out at centre, Cerro Tololo at right (HL)

Gemini South, Cerro Pachon, Región de Coquimbo, Chile, fotoeins.com
Gemini South, Cerro Pachon, Región de Coquimbo, Chile, fotoeins.com

Dome opens at sunset in preparation for the night-sky: Gemini South telescope, Cerro Pachón (HL)

An “observing run” (or shift) at the telescope can last a few nights. Naturally, most of the work is done at night, with telescopes open to the sky and detectors ready to receive precious photons. For many, there’s insomnia, and some forego sleep in the morning hours to work on their data or their latest paper. Switching from day to night can take a couple of days for adjustment.

Often I’ll see desert foxes sleeping by day, and I wonder whose lives are easier. At the mountain dormitories, I have a room with a warm bed, and the food’s good up top. The view’s pretty damn good, too. I’m more than happy to share the desert and skies with the furry four-legged tenants of the Atacama.

Trouble comes when I leave and say “hasta luego” to the desert and mountain view.

Time and distance have provided valuable perspective after leaving astronomy at the end of 2011. I miss the people with whom I worked, and I miss the panoramic views. At present, the Pachón summit hosts Gemini South and the SOAR Telescope. A one-way drive to Tololo or Pachón is about 90 minutes from La Serena.

Cordillera de los Andes, Desierto de Atacama, Región de Coquimbo, Chile, fotoeins.com

Morning skies over the cordillera, from Cerro Tololo (HL)

Sunday TravelerA modified version of this post appeared on Maptia. I made all the photos above. This post appears on Fotoeins Fotopress at fotoeins.com, and also appears as part of the Sunday Traveler series.

The Antarctic flyby, QF63 SYD-JNB

On a plane again: it’s either a prayer or a curse.

I summon the sleep gods on this 14-hour flight, and going over this very large body of water seems like an eternity.

Over the last few years, I’ve become accustomed to 10-hour “shuttles” between Chile and the United States, and I’ve trained mind and body to divide 10-hour flights into three easy-to-digest chunks between take-off and landing: (1) dinner; (2) an attempt at sleep, movies, or reading; and the final third that is (3) breakfast.

But it’s always been the case that the extra flying hours beyond the 10 mark can be a big mental block.

Sometimes, the goal is the motivation. On this 14-hour flight, Cape Town is the destination.

Qantas flight 63 is a non-stop flight from Sydney, Australia to Johannesburg, South Africa, and it’s at the latter where I’ll transfer onto another plane to Cape Town.

Grazing Antarctica over the Indian Ocean, QF63 SYD-JNB, fotoeins.com

Grazing the continent (Instagram)

This ‘marathon’ flight takes place mostly over the Indian Ocean, the third largest on the planet.

On a flat surface, the shortest route between two points is a line, but on a curved surface, the shortest route is a curved path (i.e., great circle). QF63’s flight path takes us over the South Indian Ocean, and the plane skirts past the edge of Antarctica, on the side opposite to South America.

About halfway into the flight, I’m standing in the rear galley of this jumbo jet plane, and I’m looking out the window. The optics through the window are weird, giving a weird warped view of the world outside. I’m leaving nose prints on the interior plexiglass screen.

Sure enough, there it is.

Grazing Antarctica over the Indian Ocean, QF63 SYD-JNB, fotoeins.com

Grazing the continent (Instagram)

Peeking under cloud cover is a hint of land below.

Under the rippling deck lies the great southern continent of Antarctica.

That’s what the plane’s in-flight displays say, too.

Our plane’s path glances over the continent of Antarctica; the display helpfully supplies geographic information, locating Argentina, Brazil, and Chile as well.

How do I feel?

Nostalgic.

There’s loss, too. I’m not going to see Antarctica on this trip, and I have no plans to do so in the near future.

After 5 years in Chile, what I miss most are the people with whom I worked, my friends and colleagues. Perhaps this “near miss” is a reminder, that I should return to South America sometime soon in the future.

Approaching South Africa, I’ve just departed Australia, after ten weeks among friends in some of the most beautiful spots around. I feel loss and separation from friends and country.

As sure as I’m moving forward on this around-the-world journey, I’m confident I’m coming back someday soon.

On board Qantas flight QF63 SYD-JNB, I made the photos above on 10 October 2012 with a 4th-generation iPod Touch. This post appears on Fotoeins Fotopress at fotoeins.com.

Chilean morning send-off: under the Andes with Atacama minions

Cerro Tololo, Región de Coquimbo, Chile

Valley morning fog below Andean foothills

The morning creeps gently forward, up and over the desert sky. Sounds? What sounds? What scarce sounds there are, they pierce the silence with soft whistles and drawn-out wails. Alternating light and dark horizontal streamers, known also as “the rays of God,” mark the first light of dawn. Small clumps break loose, as the overnight shroud of valley fog pulls back slowly from view.

The sun climbs higher, the shadows grow shorter, the cotton patch dissolves. It isn’t long until a spectacular sight is revealed. This is what you get from a height of 7500 feet above sea level.

Dry river beds twist and sweep and stretch along canyon floors. Cactus and desert scrub carpets the surrounding hills in faded greens and dusty browns. To the east rise jagged rocky teeth capped with white frosting, fixing the location of the Andes along the Chilean spine.

In this desolate and isolated part of the world, I’ve often wondered about the few brave souls who make this place their home. They’re prospectors, miners, even some farmers, all of whom carry their burden for financial endeavour. People have been digging around in these parts for centuries, whether it’s plant, mineral, or some kind of monetary paydirt.

But there’s another human enterprise with different rewards, a quest that asks questions on a much larger scale.

How do planets take shape?
How do stars form?
How are galaxies assembled?
Is there life elsewhere in the universe?

These issues occupy astronomers from all over the world. Many astronomers go up onto mountains, just like this one, onto the summit of Cerro Tololo, peering into the skies. The telescopes point straight up, reaching out like outstretched hands, wanting more.

Cerro Tololo, Región de Coquimbo, Chile

Illuminated telescope domes on Tololo

I’ve been coming here since 1995. I’m never bored of Chilean sunrises, impressive in the daily entrance over the tall Andes mountains. I’m never bored of Chilean sunsets, providing as always some measure of peace in the daily exit over the waters of the Pacific.

And so, I’ve witnessed hundreds of Chilean sunrises over the years, but today, this special sunrise stands out from the rest.

Today, I’m leaving the mountain for the last time. Soon, I’ll leave Chile, my residence of 5 years. Soon, I’ll leave behind astronomy, after 15 years in the making.

I’m fortunate I recognized change was coming in my life. All the signs were present, even though trying to stick around was undoubtedly the safer choice. Any despair I had about leaving astronomy has transformed into something resembling relief. I have no regrets about astronomy; it’s time for something new.

I have a new journey to take on: one full year around the world. I’m okay with jumping into the unknown; I get to ask different questions, even if I receive few answers in reply. I’m reminded the journey itself will be the most important thing.

Some furry four-legged creatures have arrived to greet the sunrise here on the summit of Cerro Tololo. A scruffy mountain goat moseys up, lifting its head to gauge my morning mood. Three desert foxes about the size of small dogs have also joined the party. They all leave disappointed; I have nothing for their attempts to beg for food.

It sounds strange, but this all seems to fit as my way of saying goodbye to Chile.

But a ‘goodbye’ to the old implies there’s a ‘hello’ to something new.

Well, what’s it going to be?
What am I going to be?

Recovering astronomer.
Language collector.
Aspiring writer.
Enthusiastic traveler.
Passionate photographer.

We are all the same, under the same sky.

Cerro Tololo, Región de Coquimbo, Chile

Mountain goat (cabra) on sentry

Cerro Tololo, Región de Coquimbo, Chile

Yappy desert foxes (zorros culpeos)

More from Chile

•   Fotoeins Friday: Asleep at the Atacama view
•   Chile’s Elqui River: World Tourism Day

I made all of the photos above. A version of this story appears on World Nomads (May 2014). This post appears as part of the Sunday Traveler series. Appearing on Fotoeins Fotopress at fotoeins.com, the present version is a transcript of the reading at the Vancouver launch for Debbie Wong’s book, “The Same Sky” on 30 July 2014.

Fotoeins Friday: Asleep at the Atacama view

Chile’s Elqui River: World Tourism Day

Embalse Puclaro, Region de Coquimbo, Chile

27 September 2013 has been earmarked by the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) as “World Tourism Day 2013″. Various tweets throughout the day have highlighted responsible water usage around the world.

The Elqui River in north-central Chile begins in the mountains of the lower Andes, and flows west to the Pacific along the southern edge of the Atacama desert through the towns of Vicuña and La Serena. The average annual total rainfall in La Serena is 10 to 13 cm (4 to 5 inches), less than one-tenth of the total for Vancouver, Canada.

The Elqui was dammed by 1999 to control water usage by farms in the lower valley and by pisco vinyards in the upper valley; however, construction of the dam displaced people in small low-lying towns on both sides of the river. Behind the dam in the Embalse or reservoir Puclaro (photo above), the water level has declined with lower annual snowfall in the mountains above and higher usage by farms and the increasing population below. The price for water continues to rise due to competition from mines, farms, and the growing population. Numerous research visits and five years living in La Serena emphasized the contrast of the importance of water to people’s lives in the region with the dominant presence of the neighbouring Atacama.

I made the photo above on 9 August 2008; the photo is also available here. This post appears on Fotoeins Fotopress at fotoeins.com.

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