Thursday, September 27, 2012


Last week, Chile celebrated its Fiestas Patrias, or independence day. Due to the holiday, schools were on vactaion last week (and in some cases, the week before as well), meaning that my involvement in school activities have been extremely minimal. However, the holiday also meant that I had the freedom to explore the city, and also take a 3 day trip to San Pedro de Atacama.

Every year for the week of Septembeber 18, cities in Chile transform to include spaces to celebrate. In Antofagasta, there was a huge fair with rides, games, craft sales, and a stadium for music and dance. There were also the ramadas, a carnival-type space set up with booths of traditional foods, drinks, and games. The majority of my pictures from the celebrations got lost (my phone has recently "moved on," so to speak), which is a shame, since I had many pictures of adorable children in traditional dress dancing the cueca. But here's one that remains of what the fair looked like during the day:

Because my roommates were on vacation, too, they were nice enough to take me to la Portada ("the Gateway"), the main tourist attraction in the Antofagasta area. The Portada is a natural rock formation and also a natural monument of Chile.

 The area also attracts a lot of great fauna, including these PENGUINS!

 After the main celebrations on Tuesday and Wednesday, I took a three-day trip to San Pedro de Atacama with an American friend from La Serena. San Pedro is a tiny town in the desert, which has preserved much of the tradtional architecture of Chile. Because of this, and because San Pedro is close to some incredibly beautiful natural landscapes, the town has been taken over by tourism agencies which book tours to lakes, salt flats, geysers, valleys and flamingo preservations, to name a few. With only three days and limited funds, we had to pick and choose which adventures we signed up for, or took for ourselves.
First, we biked to Valle de La Luna which is famous for its stunning sunsets. The bike ride was windy, dusty, and mostly uphill towards the Valley, but it was also really fun and awesome to be a part of the daily pilgrimage to the sunset, without having to be a part of a specific bus tour.



Friday morning, we woke up early (by my standards, not my mother's) to go to the El Taito geysers for sunrise. When the temperatures are low before the sun comes up, the geysers apparently go much higher. I've never seen anything like this. Despite the bitter morning cold, the crowds from the numerous tours and the early wake-up, this was definitely a highlight of the trip.
Note Venus in the morning sky


After getting a full tour of all the geysers, and once it warmed up to a steamy 40 or 50 degrees Ferenheit, we were invited to go for a swim in the natural pool. It was either lukewarm or boiling hot, but I'm glad I took a quick dip. Once in a lifetime experience, right?

Also included on the list of once-in-a-lifetime opportunities that I felt that I had to seize in San Pedro was SANDBOARDING. Too much fun to describe with words, so here are some cool pictures instead:

The tumbles I took and the sand that made it to every part of my body was well worth the adventure.

Through my connections in Antofagasta, I also had the opportunity in San Pedro to meet Alain Maury, a French astronomer who decided to leave his work at ESO with La Silla to move to San Pedro and start his own public observatory from scratch. He's built over a dozen telescopes himself, and created the perfect set up for what has become the most well-known and respected astronomy tourism site in the country.

About 10 telescopes set up ahead of time to objects of interest. With more telescopes, that awkward time waiting to focus the telescope on the next object is eliminated. All of the telescopes are kept  outside, due to the naturally dry nature of San Pedro, additionally allowing tourists to experience the whole BIG SKY experience when not observing through an eyepiece.

Dr. Maury also provides domes for astronomers to observe in the pristine Atacama skies without the hassle of traveling to the site themselves. These telescopes are remotely operated from around the world.

Tree, moon, and most of the Scorpio constellation in between. Can you identify the head and body of the Scorpion?

My very own moon picture! Visitors on the astro tours loved this part.
 I was inspired by how interactive, interesting and truly funny these tours were. The visitors were really engaged in both the hour-long overview of astronomy and the observing itself. While my project is focused on how children engage with astronomy, I'm also generally interested in how astronomy is effectively communicated with all parts of the public. Dr. Maury's observatory and astro tour taught me a lot about how to create positive and educational astronomy experiences for the public. It's clear why he's considered to be the best.

Now that I'm back in Antofagasta and schools are back in session, I'm hoping to get going full-speed with school visits and project related things in my remaining three weeks in Chile... stay tuned! And please leave comments. It's great to hear from people reading and get feedback on what you think about the blog!

Monday, September 10, 2012

Give Antofagasta a chance

Since arriving in Chile, when I told people I was going to spend a month in Antofagasta, the typical responses included "Are you sure?" "What an ugly city..." and "WHY?" to name a few. Even my guidebook of Chile says the following aobut my new home city:

"It is not a terribly attractive place, perhaps only worth stopping at to break a long journey."

It's true that this city is a bit more industrial and less tourist-oriented than La Serena, but I'm here to show the haters of the world that this is actually a great and beautiful city.

First and foremonest, I don' think that any place, anywhere could be considered ugly when you combine the ocean and the mountains together. The dry climate makes for some brown mountains without any vegetation, but there's something kind of dramatic about them nonetheless. And the water, just like in La Serena, is stunning.

The city itself is great, too, with a great variety of places, art and people everywhere.

And with the desert so close by, amazing night skies are easily within reach. Last night, I was invited by new astronomy/outreach friends from the University to go to a star party. The skies were incredible and since I was gifted a beautiful new tripod by the La Serena outreach team, (along with a new Galileoscope!) my pictures are a lot better... although not excellent.

Check out the Milky Way!
Check out the LMC!

But the best thing about this city so far has been my wonderful home and roomates.
My new roommates! Left to right -- Pablo, Ive, Moni, Me (Cats Izzy and Charlie in front)
I'm excited to eplore the city more and get started with the project soon. 

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Little Maya and the BIG telescopes

This past week I've been spending a lot of time going to the sites of the major telescopes in the La Serena area. Friday I went back to Tololo with Juan for a school tour. The kids had a lot of questions about the technical aspects of the observatories (why the sites were chosen, how the telescopes worked, etc.) and a handful of the normal Astronomy questions about Pluto's planet status, black holes and life on Mars. Two students stood out in particular -- one girl who had a million questions about Mars, and one little boy who had a list of written out questions mostly about the best thing about being an astronomer, what it takes to be an astronomer, and so on. They were 11 and 12, respectively, and I hope that their enthusiasm holds as they continue through school.

After the students left and we had lunch, Juan took me on a tour of the Observatory neighborhood. First stop, the building site of LSST!

It's just a flattened heap of rocks now, but (relatively) soon it will be the site of some of the most exciting and accessible science in astronomy history! Pretty incredible to think what will happen right in this spot in the decades to come.

Next stop: Gemini South and SOAR. Gemini has an 8.1m telescope, with its Northern twin living on Mauna Kea in Hawai'i. Seeing Gemini was like meeting a celebrity. We got a full tour of the facilities, and got to see everything up close and personal.

SOAR was pretty great also at 4.1m, although maybe seeing it before Gemini would have made it more exciting. We also got a nice tour there before the technical staff left for the weekend.
SOAR from the outside.
During the week, I met some staff from the Las Companas Observatory (about 2ish hours north of La Serena), and they invited me to go up. So on Saturday the Observatory tours continued! Las Companas is home to the Magellan telescopes (6.5m each) as well as a few other, smaller telescopes. Here are some photos of the day, although besides Magellan, I can't remember quite how big the other telescopes were.
Next to one of Magellan's 6.5m scopes
This is apparently one of two identical telescopes in the world. The other lives in Haifa, Israel - my birth place! So in a way, this telescope is like my soul-sister scope.

Magellan 6.5m. HUGE.
From Las Companas, we could see the La Silla Observatory, which belongs to ESO. Apparently it's difficult to get access to the telescopes themselves, so we didn't go. But here's the view:
La Silla Observatory (ESO)
Between all of those, I've gotten a full tour of all the scientific observatories in the area! I didn't make it to any tourist observatories -- my Mamalluca tour got cancelled THREE TIMES last week due to clouds -- but I do feel like I've gotten a full experience regardless.

ESPECIALLY because last night I had the opportunity to go to Tololo at night and experience the pristine skies that make these observatories so successful. Daniel had a telescope set up for special guest of the observatory, and I alternated between helping set up, looking through the telescope, attempting to take pictures (failure, see below) and basking in the radiance of the southern sky. I saw the Milky Way, with gas and dust included, and also the Large and Small Magellanic clouds! WITH MY OWN EYES. It was incredible. Here are some photos to demonstrate both the beauty of the skies and the inadequacy of my camera:

Can you see the outline of the telescope?
Can you see the Milky Way?
 It's too bad about the camera. I think with a more stable tripod things will improve-- the stars look so gross because the wind was blowing and shaking the whole system -- but really to take good photos of the night sky, I would need a better camera. Daniel took some excellent photos with his giant camera/giant tripod system, and if he sends them I can post them here. Ahhh, the compromise between traveling light and with few expensive items and having the benefit of technology.

I go to Antofagasta TOMORROW! I can't believe how quickly time has passed here. I'll miss La Serena/Coquimbo and the people I've met here, but I know it's time to move on. More skies to see! More adventures to have! More children to talk to about the Universe!