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!

1 comment:

  1. Awesome! What ginormous machines. Keep up the posting and adventuring!