EurAstro Mission to Chile November 2002

J.-L. Dighaye

During the second half of November 2002, a group of four EurAstro members visited the Atacama desert and all the major astronomical observatories except Las Campanas who turned down our request. Here are some highlights of our tour, written in a layman's language (technical terms and academic degrees of our guides omitted):

Nov 19: the Leonids
According to predictions, no storm was to be seen from Chile. Yet we observed 5 Leonids from 03:30 to 04:00 local time in San Pedro de Atacama before moving to a nearby mountain site (elevation 3300 m, sub-zero temperature, very clear sky), where we saw about 40 Leonids and about 10 sporadic meteors from 04:30 until dawn.
Nov 19: penumbral lunar eclipse
Appropriately enough, we saw the moonrise from the Valle de la Luna, then we observed and videotaped the event until mid-eclipse. The lunar darkening was conspicuous.

Nov 23: ESO / Paranal
Emmanuel Jehin was our guide. I am proud to be the one who first showed stars and comets to Manu when he was a teenager. Subsequently, he founded the GAS, a very active Belgian amateur astronomy group, before turning professional and joining the ESO. Manu organised a full visit of the VLT for us. The four 8-m telescopes, housed in enclosures full of automated flaps and louvres for turbulence control, are impressive by themselves, and the sophisticated instruments at their foci are second to none. Tremendous amounts of data are processed via the control rooms - people are quite busy and concentrated due to the tight and intricate observing schedules, they hardly smile there! Even more nervous are those in charge of the VLTI (I is for interferometry): combining the beams of all four instruments - not to mention the smaller, mobile telescopes - through a train of optical components will be a tour de force. Everybody can relax, however, at the beautiful underground Residence, with swimming pool and artificial subtropical climate, closed by a peplum at night for controlling light pollution, a sensitive issue.

Nov 24: CTIO / Pachon & Tololo
After having toured Gemini South with freelance guide Helena Vincke (thanks for the Belgian lunch with pommes frites!), we met famous Patrice Bouchet and his team of enthousiastic young astronomers - we won't hear the word "Wolf-Rayet" without emotion now! People at Tololo do feel happy, and the sky is superb there. The following statement is subjective since we only spent one night at Paranal (where a cloud system was dissipating) and one at Tololo (perfectly clear sky) before heading for La Silla (where a further cloud system was approaching), yet the naked-eye night sky was most impressive at Tololo and least impressive at La Silla, Paranal coming in between. Just for us, Patrice made a grand show of his 4-m telescope, pointing it at various attitudes, changing its secondary mirror and its instruments as we were moved around, next to and even inside it.

Nov 25-26: ESO/La Silla
My former colleague Olivier Hainaut, now in charge of the NTT, the forerunner of the VLT, arranged our stay there. Oli asked Vanessa Doublier to assist us - definitely the right choice since Vanessa is an outstanding young astronomer (and recently a TV star, aesthetically way better than Sagan or Reeves!) very committed to her job and compassionate with "her" instruments. Vanessa was our problem solver. No surprise that the EurAstro Board of Executives declared her to belong to our honorary members, entitled to free assistance, accommodation and participation in all our further activities for "her person, one astronomical husband, and a plurality of observatory cats" (sic). We learned that several telescopes were decommissioned. Amateurs might hire them, however they are not cheap! We took plenty of CCD images and argentic pictures with our own equipment, concentrating on the Magellanic clouds - see a small sample below.

Nov 27: Cerro Calan
Again with the help of Vanessa, we had the opportunity to meet Edgardo Costa who showed us the historical instruments and told us about the teaching perspectives of this observatory situated atop a hill in Santiago.

Then we made for Europe - just a stopover for reconfiguring our equipment before proceeding to Australia and the Dec 4 total solar eclipse. But this is another story..

Below we present some images of our tour through Chile. Click on the thumbnail to see the full picture:

The Very Large Telescope (VLT)

General view of the VLT

one of the VLT telescopes

view of the Residence

the visitors

Deep-Sky at La Silla

Saturn - LMC with 12mm (fixed)

Saturn -LMC with 12mm (guided)

Canopus, LMC, SMC

Sirius, Canopus, LMC

Eta Carinae (enhanced)

Eta Carinae (normal)

Cerro Pachon & Tololo

Gemini (outside)

Gemini (inside)

The EurAstro team

the 4-m telescope

the 4-m mirror

La Silla

the SEST

the 3.6-m telescope and the CAT

the 3.6-m telescope

the NTT

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