Destination Chile – Visiting the European Southern Observatory with #MeetESO (long read)

Allow me to be frank at the commencement. You will not like me. After reading this article the majority of you will be envious, and the others will be exhilarated. When you come to research the 2019 La Silla total solar eclipse, the European Southern Observatory’s (ESO) VLT Paranal site, their ELT atop Cerro Armazones, and the ALMA plateau, try to feel how it was for me, how it was for me and ponder: ‘Was that shudder of surprise and wonder the same shudder he sensed? Did he know something more profound?’

That is it. This is my prologue, nothing in ryhme. I was a member of #MeetESO, and you will not like me.

26th October 2018: Launch of the competition

On the 2nd of July 2019, the path of totality of a solar eclipse was due to pass across the ESO’s La Silla Observatory in the Atacama Desert, of northern Chile, South America. This rare astronomical event would fall in the fiftieth year of operation of ESO’s first observatory. Inaugurated in 1969, the La Silla Observatory led Europe to the front line of astronomical research and continues to this day to deliver remarkable, ground-breaking science. On the occasion of the 2019 total solar eclipse, the ESO organised their second #MeetESO tweet-up. Eight lucky social media enthusiasts had the chance to witness the La Silla total solar eclipse, and visit ESO’s sites in Chile. ESO, in collaboration with the Government of Chile, organised an outreach campaign that gave people the opportunity to experience this rare phenomenon from the La Silla Observatory itself. To accompany the lucky eight, 1000 visitors would also have access to the site, including more than 30 high school students and 30 senior citizens from La Serena, La Higuera and Coquimbo, the districts neighbouring the Observatory.

Another group of students would be invited to La Silla from all over Chile. The youngsters were selected through a contest organised in collaboration with the Chilean Ministry of Education, where they were required to write a letter where they explained their interest in science and, particularly, in astronomy. The winners, each together with a parent, would be rewarded with a fully paid trip to La Silla.

International and local media were also invited and about 60 representatives responded to the call. In addition, ESO would webcast the eclipse online.

Eight social media users would be selected from roughly 300 participants that applied, from thousands of engagements, with a reach of 4.5 million people from ESON countries, to participate in the #MeetESO second edition, a social media gathering taking the winners to all of ESO’s sites. They would be sharing their experience with the world on Twitter and Instagram, as well as on their own channels. A public competition dedicated to La Silla Observatory’s 50th anniversary, #LaSilla50Years, also saw one person from ESO’s member States win a trip to Chile to visit their sites.

Between the 26th of October and the 15th of November 2018, ESO began their period over which they scanned their communities. They looked for candidates who meet the eligibility criteria:

  1. Be a keen and experienced user of Twitter and/or Facebook and/or Instagram and/or YouTube. Vloggers are also welcome
  2. Be at least 18 years old at the time of the trip
  3. Be a national of one of the ESO Network countries
  4. Have at least a conversational level of English
  5. Be interested in astronomy and space*
  6. Show interest in ESO and its activities
  7. Not suffer from conditions incompatible with travelling to desert areas, above 5000m and travelling long distances in a bus.

…and like to engage on social media and share interesting astronomy and space-related content with their friends and, most importantly, who take a leading role in engaging their communities with ESO’s scientific discoveries and front-line telescopes.

The ESO welcomed social media users from communities that were not necessarily astronomy-oriented, but who were willing to discover this area and share their discoveries with their friends. The top eight candidates who qualified, based on the selection criteria above, and who demonstrate creativity, dedication, relevance and passion in sharing content as described above would be contacted with a proposal to join #MeetESO. As a footnote; the size of the candidates online community should preferably be large, but no social media user would in principle excluded.

Candidates were welcome to demonstrate their interest in astronomy, space and ESO in whatever manner they consider most creative, relevant and convincing. Putting themselves onto the ESO’s radar. Here are some suggestions how:

On Facebook

Tag the ESOAstronomy Facebook page in your message, using the hashtag #MeetESO, ensuring that your post’s visibility is not restricted so that ESO can see it.

On Twitter

Tweet @ESO telling them why they should select you. If you want, you could ask your friends to tweet the @ESO to express their support for you. Always making sure you mentioned @ESO and #MeetESO in your messages so they could track them down.

On Instagram

You could mention ESO on Instagram. Ensuring you used #MeetESO in order for them to find your posts easily.

On Youtube

The ESO welcomed popular, creative or simply very engaging YouTubers and vloggers out there, and were open for them to create videos that demonstrated their interest in astronomy, space and ESO.

I entered, via twitter.

20th November 2018: Winners are contacted privately

10:00pm You’ve got mail.

“Dear Paul, thank you very much for applying for #MeetESO and for all your contributions during the selection period. I am happy to inform you that you have been selected among the lucky eight participants. Congratulations!”

I did not fall asleep until at least 3am, overwhelmed with excitement.

4th December 2018: Public announcement of winners

Who are the #lucky8?

  1. Eric Benedetti, United States of America. Eric can be found on Instagram and Facebook .
  2. Paul Davies, United Kingdom. Paul can be found on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and on his website
  3. Guillaume Doyen, France. Guillaume can be found on YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and on his blog.
  4. Tara Foster, Ireland/Australia. Tara can be found on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and on her blog.
  5. Olivia Haider, Austria. Olivia can be found on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
  6. Felipe Hime Miranda, Brazil. Felipe can be found on YouTube, Instagram and Twitter.
  7. Carol Wright, United Kingdom. Carol can be found on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
  8. Norédine Benazdia, France. Norédine can be found on YouTube and Twitter.

There we have it, now we knew, that in six Months from the announcement that we had been grouped together in what would be known as the #MeetESO #Lucky8, we would be looking skyward, embracing the void in some of the darkest skies on the planet, the Atacama Desert of Northern Chile, Ambassadors of the ESO, tasked with bringing the World to Chile.

The first time I saw the Milky Way, was when I was a child and had slipped away to lie in the grass when everybody else had gone to sleep. I can still remember the feeling of the warm Summer grass between my toes. There was no Moonlight to wash the lawn from where I lay, and as my eyes gradually adjusted to dark, and that sunless sea of the Milky Way, that Celestial Nile, stretched out before me, I held my breath in wonder. As an only-child, and an introvert that I worked hard to change throughout most of my younger life, I wanted nothing more than to escape the chaos of my childhood and let the quiet of the night sky act as a comforting constant. Even today, as the most jaded of city dwellers, I am still moved when encountering a clear night sky studded with stars, and when it happens to me after all these years it still takes my breath away. A starry sky is the truest friend in life.

I would later learn that the view of the Milky Way I was so keenly observing was called the ‘Orion Spur’ or to give it it’s full name, the ‘Orion-Cygnus Arm’ being that I was in the Northern Hemisphere. Given that our Milky Way Galaxy is a large spiral galaxy with a black hole at its centre, the part you can see from Earth depends on which hemisphere you’re in and the time of year. It’s a large spiral galaxy, between 100,000 and 180,000 light years wide and containing between 200 billion and 400 billion stars. The Milky Way has four spiral arms, and two of these arms flow from each end of a ‘bar’ across the middle of the galaxy.

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Viewed side-on, from far-far away, it’s a disc with a central bulge, and I was in the wrong hemisphere to see that. The southern hemisphere gets the best view of the star-rich heart of the galaxy. The reason it is so bright is actually because people in the Southern Hemisphere are able to look above and below the dust clouds that obscure the main part of the core, and see the stars around the core. Even though I would travel South of the Equator on numerous occasions in later life, it would take a little over 30 years, until #MeetESO, to see a Southern Hemisphere sky in all its glory, these envoys of beauty.

30th June 2019: Arrival in Santiago, Chile

It was a little after 8am when the pilot of my British Airways direct flight to Santiago decided that he was unable to land safely on his approach, activated a switch (usually positioned on the back of the throttle levers) and increased the power to go-around thrust, pulled up sharply, and out of the fog engulfing Santiago. The pilot informed us that if we were unable to land on the second attempt, we shall divert to Mendoza, in Argentina. 45 minutes later, we successfully landed in Santiago, as the fog had thinned enough for the pilot to see the lights of the runway on his approach. Passengers cheered and applauded, and stewards high-fived each other.

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Two hours later I was checking into my hotel, the wonderfully elegant Hotel Boutique Bidasoa, along with 27 other ESO’s Science Outreach Network members (ESON) and we are informed that the coach we are travelling the seven hours to La Silla in, will be departing at 7am the following Morning.

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We spent the rest of the day getting to know Santiago, shop for food, water and supplies, and spent the evening getting to know one another.

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1st July 2019: La Silla Observatory

The La Silla Observatory is located on the outskirts of the Chilean Atacama Desert, 372 miles (600 km) north of Santiago, and at an altitude of 2400 metres. It took five hours from when we left Santiago for the Sun to break over the Andes Mountain peaks and bathe the Atacama desert floor, and us, in sunlight.

The Atacama Desert is a desert plateau in South America covering a 600-miles strip of land on the Pacific coast, west of the Andes mountains. The Atacama is one of the driest places in the world, as well as the only true desert to receive less precipitation than the polar deserts. According to estimates, the Atacama Desert occupies 41,000 sq miles or 49,000 sq miles if the barren lower slopes of the Andes are included. Most of the desert is composed of stony terrain, salt lakes, sand, and felsic lava that flows towards the Andes.

As we journeyed ever further North and further into the Atacama, cloud banks rolled outward towards the retreating coast and we were riding a bright red desert floor, under a blue sky that stretched from horizon to horizon. Comparisons to the landscape resembling Mars were quick to spread throughout the coach.

Before long, the La Silla Observatory came into sight. La Silla stands at the summit of a 2400m mountain, originally known as Cinchado. The mountain was renamed La Silla (the saddle) after its shape. Bordering the southern extremity of the Atacama desert in Chile. It is located about 100 miles north of La Serena. It rises isolated and remote from any artificial light and dust sources, and has one of the darkest night skies on the Earth.

La Silla has been an ESO stronghold since the 1960s. Here, ESO operates two of the most productive 4-metre class telescopes in the world.

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The 3.58-metre New Technology Telescope (NTT) broke new ground for telescope engineering and design and was the first in the world to have a computer-controlled main mirror (active optics), technology developed at ESO and now applied to most of the world’s current large telescopes.

The ESO 3.6-metre telescope is now home to the world’s foremost extrasolar planet hunter: The High Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Searcher (HARPS), a spectrograph with unrivalled precision.

The infrastructure of La Silla is also used by many of the ESO Member States for targeted projects such as the Swiss 1.2-metre Leonhard Euler Telescope, the Rapid Eye Mount telescope (REM) and the TAROT Telescope gamma-ray burst chaser, as well as more common user facilities such as the MPG/ESO 2.2-metre and the Danish 1.54-metre Telescopes. The 67-million pixel Wide Field Imager on the MPG/ESO 2.2-metre Telescope has taken many amazing images of celestial objects, some of which have now become icons in their own right.

Scientific discoveries at La Silla include; The HARPS spectrograph that has found a large number of low-mass extrasolar planets. It detected the planets within the Gliese 581 planetary system, which contains what may be the first known rocky planet in a habitable zone, outside the Solar System. Several telescopes at La Silla played a crucial role in linking gamma-ray bursts—the most energetic explosions in the Universe since the Big Bang—with the explosions of massive stars.

With the sun setting, La Silla welcomed us with a rather dramatic, and rapidly changing horizon. It offered us the view of an orange sea of sand, dry air, and scorched sedona red rock layered mountains, against a dimming, cerulean sky. There was a calm and cool desert breeze, but the temperature rapidly dropped when the sun fell below the horizon.

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A looming sky of the brightest stars and planets quickly began to become visible as the light fell away. First was the Southern Cross, followed by Alpha Centuri, then Venus, Jupiter, Saturn, and the utterly heart-stirringly beautiful, Constellation of Scorpio. The excitement built among us from the expectation of witnessing the upcoming celestial treat we were about to see, that of a Southern Hemisphere Milky Way, in a dark sky. Astrophotographers looked at us with a wry smile, working Astronomers patted us on the shoulders when passing. There were no words, but we understood everything they were saying, or weren’t to be exact. But until then, it was dinner first, where we were handed our VIP/Media wristband, our torch, suntan lotion, reusable steel water bottle, and eclipse glasses.

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Having finished my evening meal, I returned to my room, keeping my gaze firmly at the floor, and at my feet guided by torchlight as La Silla has no artificial light to illuminate your path as they would disrupt the working telescopes. Also, I did not want to look at the stars until my eyes had fully adjusted. I also did not want to ruin the surprise I’ve waited my life to see. I layer myself with clothing in preparation for a night exposed to the elements; First is a vest, followed by a long-sleeved cotton jumper, gilet, fleece and windbreaker, balaclava, hat and gloves, thermal trekking trousers, hiking boots with anti-slip rubber soles, as I try to maintain my body temperature in the -10°C in this ground cracked weather forecast for the evening, let alone survive the cutting wind chill that carries across the desert to meet us. It was relentless, but my preparation was rewarded as I was quite comfortable.

I returned to the restaurant, where our group assembled and together we stepped outside into the darkness for our tour of the La Silla telescopes and the control rooms. Still I kept my gaze to the ground. Our tour guide, who was a working Astronomer at the site, told us to look up, and as people complied and I heard gasps, that sudden sound of inhalation all around me as I am surrounded by people evidently amazed at the wonder of the sight they saw when they looked skyward. Still I kept my gaze to the ground. People were pointing at stars, planets, and constellations quicker than they could call out. Still I kept my gaze to the ground. People began hugging strangers, jumping up and down together in excitement. Still, I kept my gaze to the ground.

The crowd thinned as the door was opened to the control room and in groups, people went in. I hear the voice of my friend Carol standing beside me, she finally inhales, as I felt her hand take mine in hers, and as she wiped away a tear with her other, she whispers “…Paul, look up”.

My heart was racing as I began to lift my eyes from the floor. The butterflies started to dance. I felt a rushing flow of ecstasy as giddiness embraces me. It was at that moment that everything changed, a shift in perspective, a life re-arranged. A soul ignited and smothered in bliss.

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The sea of stars above my head was widely spread, expanded, the river of the Milky Way was bright enough to light the floor beneath me, spreading light throughout, a constellation that raided the dark of the night. All shining uninterruptedly, without the intruding light of the moon. It was a celestial wildfire, phosphorescent, a torrent, blazing across the entire sky. When I looked at that night sky, suddenly, standing on that peak… I felt small, insignificant. My eyes darted from left to right and back again, staring at the centre of our Galaxy, my thoughts drifted to the end of the Universe, the darkness between the stars and stellar dust that was so sparse among the light, where space ends, if it even does, to the end of time, where out there there is no tomorrow. It was unfathomable. As Sarah Williams, the English poet and novelist, once said; “I have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night”, but here in that moment, I had a glimpse of our World islanded in its vast, unexplored sea of stars, and myself on it, and yet I feel as though I was floating far, far away from any World I knew before that sight. For the remainder of the night, that sky rooted me firmly in my place, and compelled my soul to look upward, as I was led from one World to another, moved in the darkness by the visible splendors of the night sky. I would never be the same again.

2nd July 2019: La Silla ObservatoryTotal Solar Eclipse

7am. Breakfast. All that is being talked about is what people’s first reactions were to last night’s sky, their thoughts, reflections, and if anybody managed to capture any good photos. Together, we were on the first shuttle bus scheduled to take guests to the event area leaving within the hour. With the gate opening to the public, where 1000 event ticket holders were due to arrive at 8am, we arrived 30mins before them and took up our viewing positions at the Observatory, on a cliff edge to the left of our VIP and Media tent.

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On that day, the Moon would cover the face of the Sun, turning day into night covering a 93 mile swathe of Northern Chile, and Argentina. How? The Sun’s distance from Earth is about 400 times the Moon’s distance, and the Sun’s diameter is about 400 times the Moon’s diameter. Because these ratios are approximately the same, the Sun and the Moon as seen from Earth appear to be approximately the same size: about 0.5 degree of arc in angular measure. This celestial event is relatively rare – the next one visible from La Silla will occur in 212 years – But this particular eclipse occurs the very same year in which the observatory celebrates its 50 years of operation anniversary.

With the start of the eclipse, first contact, due at 3:23:50pm, totality was due a little over an hour later at 4:40:19pm, and the end of totality, the diamond ring, due at 4:41:15pm. The totality of the 2019 total solar eclipse would last about 1 minute and 52 seconds from the La Silla summit. The Sun would be setting just as the entire eclipse ends and the peak of totality will happen when the Sun is a mere 13 degrees above the horizon from the view of La Silla Observatory. However, at 8am, you could already feel the excitement building in the atmosphere.

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On that day, the eyes of the World turned to Chile. Astronomy and the pristine Chilean skies were showcased to the entire World, advancing not just professional but amateur astronomy and widespread appreciation of this astronomical phenomena.

1000 visitors, including the President of the Republic of Chile, Sebastián Piñera, devoted themselves to many different activities throughout the day, including tours of the La Silla telescopes, talks and workshops, whilst the regular inhabitants of ESO’s La Silla Observatory took astronomical observations in unusual ways. Some used La Silla’s NTT, ExTrA, TAROT, and REM telescope, while others brought their own. The European Space Agency (ESA) made scientific observations of the solar atmosphere and the Earth’s ionosphere, as well as general observations for outreach and education. The Institut d’Astrophysique de Paris (IAP) made spectrographic measurements with La Silla’s 3.58-meter NTT of the solar corona, as well as fast imaging from a small telescope of the corona. (The NTT observations will improve on those done in 1991 at Mauna Kea in Hawaii.) The Space Science Institute made a measurement of linear polarization of solar K-corona and eclipse outreach activities. Italian National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF) made images of the eclipse with the Rapid Eye Mount (REM) telescope in various wavelengths.

As late afternoon approached, first contact between the Sun and the Moon was made. Having positioned ourselves adjacent to the work being done by the ESA contingent on the mountain, we were regularly updated by them of each stage of the eclipse, as it happened. The umbra, the shadows dark core, raced over the Pacific toward us. Over the course of the next hour the vivid shapes of the desert ebbed; receded and reduced to a wispy gossamer, and as the darkness approached, as if it was an ineluctable storm, it dredged deep into every valley and engulfed the mountain tops, obscuring the light and dropping the temperature by over 15°C. Totality was soon upon us.

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What drew me into the high Atacama desert was the search for something intimate in the remote. At that moment of totality, alone with ourselves, us lucky eight, collected, tranquil, and adoring, we compared the serenity the desert and of the skies at that moment, with that of our every day lives. I had listened to the advice of other photographers on the mountain throughout the build-up to this moment, they had told me; “Don’t forget, when you’re taking your photographs, to look at it, to look at totality with your own eyes, and not just through the camera’s viewfinder, don’t miss it.” At the moment of totality, I didn’t look through my viewfinder even once. In fact, I cried.

Of all the cosmic events, solar eclipses prompt perhaps the biggest change in animal behaviour. Puzzled animals that are active during the day head back to their nighttime abodes while nocturnal animals think they’ve overslept. As we stood observing totality, Red-backed Sierra Finches started singing and took off thinking it was Dawn, while small rabbit-like creatures called Viscachas, that we had observed all day from our cliff-edge vantage point, stopped foraging and nestled down for the night.

Totality soon came to an end as the Moon continued on its journey passed the Sun. The rugged topography of the lunar limb allowed beads of sunlight to shine through in some places while not in others, and the diamond ring effect, became visible around the lunar silhouette. It was greeted with cheers from the crowd, cheers that were even louder than the sight of totality 1 minute and 52 seconds ago. It was a spectacle beyond compare.

With that, the total solar eclipse was over. As the Moon continued onward and its trailing edge ceased to overlap with the solar disk and the eclipse ended, the public began to depart La Silla and the minority of us that remained on site started to reflect. There were hugs, tears and attempts to describe our own personal feelings to what we had witnessed. Soon, night fell and we were gifted with a celestial night sky that challenged description. Zodiacal light illuminated the Western horizon. Meteors streaked across the sky, with a regularity you don’t dare look away for fear of missing one, and no two were ever the same. They burned so brightly you hope you captured one when taking photographs. I did.

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At 11pm we departed La Silla with memories that would forever be embedded in our consciousness, on-board a coach for an 8 hour overnight journey to Paranal, home of the ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) at an even higher altitude, 2635 metres above sea level further North into the Atacama Desert of Chile. ESO’s Paranal Observatory is one of the very best astronomical observing sites in the world and is the flagship facility for European ground-based astronomy. I fell asleep almost immediately.

3rd July 2019: Paranal Observatory

8am. I was in the land of giants. Four hulking figures, four telescopes; Melipal (Southern Cross), Antu (Sun), Kueyen (Moon), and Yepun (Venus), which are all words for astronomical objects in the Mapuche language, dominated the summit of Cerro Paranal, a rust-red mountain. As Dawn arrived, the giants slowly rotated and stirred as they completed their night’s work. Huge shutter doors closed, and within the structures vast mirrors stopped capturing light from distance corners of the Universe. Together, all four make up the World’s most powerful optical telescope: The Very Large Telescope (VLT).

The Atacama Desert is an astronomers paradise. The sky is cloudless 330 days of the year. In the 21 years since the VLT saw first light in 1998, it has given the ESO a clearer view on some of the Universe’s greatest open questions, from direct imaging of Beta Pictoris b, the first extrasolar planet, or exoplanet, so imaged, tracking individual stars moving around the supermassive black hole at the centre of the Milky Way, observing the afterglow of the furthest known gamma-ray burst, to the successful detection of carbon monoxide molecules in a galaxy located almost 11 billion light-years away.

Paranal Observatory – instruments (period 96)image credit: ESO

Each of the VLT telescopes has a 8.2 metre-wide mirror, but, the ESO can combine light from all four mirrors and computationally reconstruct them into a single image. Together with the output of four smaller, auxiliary telescopes, this effectively creates a single mirror up to 200 metres wide. To put that into context; The VLT could distinguish a set of car headlights at the distance of the Moon.

After a little over 8 hours on-board our coach, we stepped out into the Sun and headed directly for the Paranal Residencia. To the visitor who arrives at the Paranal Residencia from the harsh natural environment of the Atacama desert, the welcoming feeling under the dome is unexpected and instantly pleasant. It is a true “oasis” within coloured concrete walls and the air is agreeably warm and moist. There was a strong sense of calm and serenity and, above all, a feeling of coming home. At night, the lighting below the roofing closure fabric is spectacular and the impression on the mind is overwhelming.

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If the hotel looks familiar, it is because the hotel’s exterior was featured in the 2008 James Bond film Quantum of Solace, in which the structure was depicted as a fictional eco-hotel in Bolivia.

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After an opportunity for some breakfast, to have a wash, change clothes, and explore the hotel and a chance to make calls home, we were swiftly escorted back to the coach as we had gained permission to tour the construction site of the Extremely Large Telescope (ELT) before having a late lunch on return to the Residencia.

At an altitude of 3046 m, on an adjacent mountain to Cerro Paranal, called Cerro Armazones, 12 miles from Paranal, the green light for construction was given in December 2014. The ELT is slated to start imaging the Universe in 2024, and will build on the technology of its predecessor, but boosts a main mirror almost 39.3 metres wide. Where the VLT can see bright objects at the farthest distances, the ELT should give the ESO a view of the very first, faint Galaxies, discovering how the Universe evolved from the first direct measurement of the accelerating expansion of the Universe, shedding light on the mysterious dark energy that appears to be causing it. The telescope will even search for variations in the fundamental physical constants over time, and so challenge the basis of the laws of nature.

ELT Foundation Work Started on Cerro Armazonesimage credit: ESO

Our coach arrived at the ELT site office situated at the base of Cerro Armazones, and we were issued our Personal Protection Equipment; Hard hats, high visibility jackets, steel toe-capped work boots, and accreditation.

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Hosted by the ELT site’s Head Engineer, we were shown blueprints, given a description of the sheer size of the ELT when completed, together with the equipment needed to complete construction, and what challenges surrounding its construction.

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The telescope is of a revolutionary optical design based on a novel five-mirror scheme that results in an exceptional image quality. The primary mirror consists of almost 800 segments, each 1.4 metres wide, but only 50 millimeters thick. Even the secondary mirror measures an impressive four metres across. Adaptive mirrors are incorporated into the optics of the telescope to compensate for the fuzziness in the stellar images introduced by atmospheric turbulence. A special correcting mirror in the telescope is supported by more than 6000 actuators that can distort its shape up to a thousand times per second.

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The diameter of the dome is 97 metres, and to put that into context you could fit 3 Arc de Triomphe’s inside the ELT. There are over 100 dampening systems in the foundations to protect the ELT from earthquakes, with 100 separate dampening systems to protect the mirror alone.

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These cranes will be used to lift parts of the telescopes onto the the man-made plateau. The crane needs to the able to lift 100 tonnes, have their own foundation constructed due to their size, as they weight 1000 tonnes alone.

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The telescope’s “eye” will be almost half the length of a soccer pitch in diameter and will gather 13 times more light than the largest optical telescopes operating today. The telescope has an innovative five-mirror design that includes advanced adaptive optics to correct for the turbulent atmosphere, providing images 16 times sharper than those from the Hubble Space Telescope.

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The telescope itself will sit on a slab of reinforced concrete with a diameter of 59 metres and 3 metres thick because ESO can’t rely on the Cerro Amazones mountain to hold the telescopes weight by itself.

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Extremely Large Telescopes are considered worldwide as one of the highest priorities in ground-based astronomy. They will vastly advance astrophysical knowledge, allowing detailed studies of subjects including planets around other stars, the first objects in the Universe, super-massive black holes, and the nature and distribution of the dark matter and dark energy which dominate the Universe. The ELT will produce discoveries that we simply cannot imagine today, and it will inspire people around the world to think about science, technology and our place in the universe. This project is truly visionary, both in what it represents for the field of astronomy and for construction and engineering.

We return our Personal Protection Equipment and accreditation to the site office, and board our bus returning us to Cerro Paranal, 12 miles away.

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A fine lunch was provided at the Residencia and the day soon fell into late afternoon before we depart, climbing by our coach to an altitude of 2635 metres to the ESO’s VLT site atop Cerro Paranal.

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It was a beautiful day and the Sun was beginning to set over the Pacific. The wind that was felt atop Cerro Amazones resembled that of an approaching storm. But here, it’s only a gentle breeze. Being bathed in warm sunlight it is a delight. A shaft of golden sunlight lands in my lap as I sat, as I attempted to absorb the sight in front of me.

Before long our tour began of Unit Telescope (UT) 2 – Kueyen. Stepping inside, we each climbed the narrow stairs to the base of the telescope itself, the observation floor. The 8.2m-diameter telescopes are housed in compact, thermally controlled buildings, which rotate synchronously with the telescopes. This design minimizes any adverse effects on the observing conditions, for instance from air turbulence in the telescope tube, which might otherwise occur due to variations in the temperature and wind flow.

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We are informed by our tour guide/working astronomer, that the VLT operates at visible and infrared wavelengths, and each individual telescope can detect objects roughly four billion times fainter than can be detected with the naked eye. Each UT telescope, Kueyen included, is a Ritchey-Chretien Cassegrain telescope with a 22-tonne, 8.2 metre Zerodur primary mirror of 14.4 m focal length, and a 1.1 metre lightweight beryllium secondary mirror. A flat tertiary mirror diverts the light to one of two instruments at the f/15 Nasmyth foci on either side, with a system focal length of 120m, or tilts aside to allow light through the primary mirror central hole to a third instrument at the Cassegrain focus. The alt-azimuth mount, with total mass around 350 tonnes, and uses active optics with 150 supports on the back of the primary mirror to control the shape of the thin (177mm thick) mirror by computers.

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Kueyen began to move. The observation floor rotated as the telescope moved into its computer-instructed position for the night’s upcoming observations. The doors above the mirror opened to reveal an early evening sky, and we get the distinct impression that Kueyen is a living breathing machine, almost sentient, not literally, but figuratively. It groaned as it bent, as it twisted into position. Liquid nitrogen dropped to the floor from its cooling system as it seemingly sweated, bending further and putting added stresses on its joints.  It settled, relaxed, exhaled as the hydraulic systems released, and we began our tour of the Control Room, via the evening sunset.

Paranal has a tradition, and as we exited UT 2, we were joined by astronomers and astrophysicists alike to watch the Sun set of the Pacific, its coastline 6 miles away. Brilliant shades of gold and cinnamon, embers of the Sun, covered us and the surrounding mountains. We watched the sunset without speaking.

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Darkness quickly fell. A black ink engulfs the VLT as we enter the Control Room. As soon as we enter we are informed that time has become an issue, as our Coach must leave the Mountain peak as its headlights will interfere with the VLTs observations, so the Control Room tour is cancelled. But, we were offered a parting gift. A light display by the VLT’s Four Laser Guide Star Facility.

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This is not just a pretty light show. The biggest barrier between ground-based telescopes and the stars is the Earth’s atmosphere. Atmospheric turbulence causes a romantic but undesired effect in astronomy: twinkling stars, which result in blurred images. Adaptive optics (AO) solves this problem by correcting for distortions introduced by the atmosphere. To do this, the AO system needs the light from a sufficiently bright star that is close to the target in the sky as a reference, and for many targets there are no suitable stars close by.

This is where the lasers come in. Lasers can excite sodium atoms in the mesosphere, which is located 60 miles above the Earth’s surface. The fluorescent light that is emitted by the sodium atoms and collected by the telescope is affected by the atmosphere in the same way as the light emitted by real stars is. So, the fluorescent light from the sodium atoms can be used by the adaptive optics system to measure and compensate for the distortions introduced by the atmosphere.

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With this capability, the VLT reaches the theoretical limit of image sharpness and is no longer limited by atmospheric blur. This is extremely difficult to attain in the visible and gives images comparable in sharpness to those from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. It will enable astronomers to study in unprecedented detail fascinating objects such as supermassive black holes at the centres of distant galaxies, jets from young stars, globular clusters, supernovae, planets and their satellites in the Solar System and much more.

Night fell. Winter was here, and a cold wind blew. We took our leave of Cerro Paranal and headed to our Coach, swiftly departing on our two hour drive to the port city of Antofagasta, to our hotel for some well needed rest, in a bed.

4th July 2019: San Pedro

We stayed at the aptly named ‘Hotel Antofagasta’ and I took full advantage of a hot shower before we were due to depart on our five hour drive to San Pedro de Atacama, a small town set on an arid high plateau in the Andes mountains of northeastern Chile, with its dramatic surrounding landscape incorporates desert, salt flats, volcanoes, geysers and hot springs.

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I awoke at 6am to the sound of waves lapping against the beach outside of my window, before I showered again and made my way out of my room, and down to reception. I was welcomed to the restaurant area by handshakes, hugs and pats-on-the-back as today is my 38th Birthday. The hotel offered a charming environment with spectacular views of the Pacific, which made for a welcome backdrop to my hearty breakfast of a selection of meats, fruits, yogurts, and several cups of tea.

Our coach departed at 7:30am and we immediately began to climb out of the city, and away from the coast. The urban area of Antofagasta stopped abruptly and before long, we are back, deep into the Atacama desert. The driest non-polar desert on Earth, that stretches across a roughly 600-mile tract of land wedged between the coastal Cordillera de la Costa mountain range and the Andes Mountains, was now a familiar place to us but still its scenery never failed to impress. The Atacama is the oldest desert on Earth and has experienced semiarid conditions for roughly the past 150 million years, the desert’s inner core has been hyper-arid for roughly 15 million years, thanks to a combination of unique geologic and atmospheric conditions in the area. We passed through the perfectly parched inner-desert region that spans roughly 50,000 square miles. To be perfectly parched, this particular area of the Atacama is tucked in the shadow of the snow-capped Andes Mountains, which blocks rainfall from the east. To the west, the up-welling of cold water from deep in the Pacific Ocean promotes atmospheric conditions that hamper the evaporation of seawater and prevent the formation of clouds and rain. We are passing through the desert’s hyper-arid core, largely devoid of plant and animal life, save for a few strains of microbial life. It has never rained here. Never.

The outskirts of the Atacama are home to communities that have adapted to thrive in these harsh conditions. As we drove across the desert, from West to East, we drove past some that still exist, and some that have since ended. With one in particular.

Our coach stopped at a place called the ‘Cementerio de los niños’. The Cemetery of the Children.

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The Cemetery of the Children is a cemetery that emerged at the beginning of the 20th century located next to the G-25 Antofagasta-Calama route, in the commune of Sierra Gorda, Chile. It is located 3miles east of the extinct town Pampa Unión. This cemetery arose from the need to bury victims, away from the settlements, of those who had died from epidemics that ravaged the region in the years 1903 to 1920, mainly the bubonic Plague transmitted by vector fleas and the yellow Fever from North America, aboard the SS Columbia. The most affected age group was the child population of the nitrate settlements. The Cemetery of the Children is one of the many cemeteries abandoned in the Pampa del Salitre; but it has the singularity that most of its population is made up of infants, approximately 3000 to 4000, and is unique in Chile.

I walked among that petrified forest of children’s graves heartbroken. It is a bleak oblivion. Despite all the love that was planted here over 100 years ago by grieving parents erecting wooden crosses that still stand, wistful tears ran down my cheeks as I touched the tops of some the crosses. It was calm and serene there. I will not forget it. Something oddly beautiful not simply painful and sad. A bouquet that has lasted over a century. I am glad that we stopped there.

Nearing our destination, our coach stopped again, this time at a place known as the ‘Valle de la Luna’, the Valley of the Moon, a salt mountain range, 8miles West of San Pedro.

img_3232image credit: Eric Benedetti

Rugged lunar landscapes, sand dunes, deep valleys and salt caves. It’s not every day you that you felt like you had departed this planet, for another. The Valley offers various stone and sand formations which have been carved by wind and water, over the course of millennia, natural elements have eroded the sand and stone, leaving behind rivers and craggy peaks. a Grand Canyon. The impressive range of color and texture, looking somewhat similar to the surface of the moon, also bleeds over to its dry lakes where the composition of salt makes a white covering layer of the area. In fact, this led NASA to test its robot, Zoe, a prototype for a Mars rover, was tested here by scientists because of the valley’s dry and forbidding terrains.

San Pedro is a village of dirt streets and adobe housing. It’s quickly evident that the town has stolen the hearts of thousands tourists with the charms of the Atacama and Spanish culture evidenced in each one of its buildings. Travelers from all nationalities walk beside us as we walk among the town’s Main Street. Our path began to grow with tourist agencies, restaurants, hotels, and all the services that a tourist might need for their adventure to the incredible wonders that enclose the San Pedro area. The culture of San Pedro is everywhere.

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Overlooked by the dormant Licancabur volcano, the Sun set painted the town pink, to purple and finally black.

After our contingent separated into groups and we had checked into our various hotels spread across the town, we reunited for dinner, and I was met with a very much appreciated chorus of ‘Happy Birthday to you’ sometime between Main Course and Dessert. At a little before 10pm, seven of us walked through the town to meet our tour guide as we had a San Pedro de Atacama Celestial Exploration (SPACE) tour booked. The tour offers people without any prior knowledge of the sky to understand how to look at it, and observe through powerful telescopes, to discover a new world, and our universe. After a short bus ride into the desert, the first part of the tour explained the naked eye sky. What do we see when we look at the stars, what is a constellation, how to learn them, how to read a sky map and recognize the main stars using a green laser pointer to show us unambiguously the various constellations. The second half of tour consists of walking, in the pitch dark, to the SPACE tours Telescope Park. They possess the largest park of telescopes of any public observatory in south America (between 20 and 72cm diameter), correctly aligned to always provide the best possible view, in order to let us discover some of the incredible views the sky has to offer.

Terrasse-de-telescopesimage credit: San Pedro de Atacama Celestial Exploration

From Saturn, to various Galaxies, infant star clusters, to the remarkable Ring Nebula, our tour lasted two and a half hours which seemed to fly by, and it culminated around a fire, with a warm drink to talk a little, before we returned to San Pedro. It had been a good Birthday.

5th July 2019: ALMA (Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array)

6am. The reception of the hotel Eric, Guilleume, and I stayed at wasn’t open by the time we were due to check out, so we left our keys in the locks of our respective room doors and began our walk through San Pedro to our coach. We journeyed to the world’s largest ground-based facility for observations in the millimeter/submillimetrer regime located on the Chajnantor plateau, at an altitude of 5000 metres. It also acted as the culmination of our week touring the Chilean sites of the European Southern Observatory.

The Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) — is a state-of-the-art telescope to study light from some of the coldest objects in the Universe. This light has wavelengths of around a millimeter, between infrared light and radio waves, and is therefore known as millimeter and submillimeter radiation. ALMA comprises 66 high-precision antennas, spread over distances of up to 10miles.

Light at these wavelengths comes from vast cold clouds in interstellar space, at temperatures only a few tens of degrees above absolute zero, and from some of the earliest and most distant galaxies in the Universe. Astronomers can use it to study the chemical and physical conditions in molecular clouds — the dense regions of gas and dust where new stars are being born. Often these regions of the Universe are dark and obscured in visible light, but they shine brightly in the millimeter and submillimeter part of the spectrum.

There was a distinctly different feel in the atmosphere among us all that morning. The reason, is the ALMA resides at an altitude of 5070m above sea level. There are inherent, very real, life threatening risks in traveling at high altitude. The talk on the coach was solely focused on how we should be prepared to recognise and respond to the symptoms of altitude illness caused by the lower level of oxygen available at high elevations. The human body can adjust to changes in altitude, by the process called acclimatization, but we were each to receive a medical before we were granted permission to travel to the Chajnantor plateau. For the past 24 hours, consuming any alcohol had been avoided, caffeine too, as they could mask the signs of altitude sickness, and everyone confirms that they had avoided taking any unnecessary medication (since their effects may mask symptoms of altitude sickness at high altitudes), such as sleeping pills, and painkillers, in particular, which can also cause serious problems at high altitudes because they can decrease breathing rate.

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Shortly after the Sun had risen over the Chajnantor plateau in the distance, our coach arrived at the Entrada Observatorio ALMA, the security gatehouse/entrance to the observatory. Once our credentials had passed all security checks, and we all had a chance to meet the resident stray Labrador Retriever ‘Almita’ (Little Alma), the gate was lifted and we continued our journey to the LAMA Operations Support Facility (OSF). The OSF is located at an altitude of 2900 metres. It is our acting Base Camp.

The ALMA Operations Support Facilityimage credit: pcdphotography

Located at the OSF are the accommodations for ALMA workers, along with the antenna control room, laboratories and offices, medical centre, among others. We are separated into two groups of fifteen; One went directly to the medical centre, the other had a tour of the Control Room. I began my tour.

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Here, we are given an introductory storytelling of how, and why ESO chose the Chajnantor plateu. After searching the world over for the perfect place to receive millimetric and submillimetric waves, scientists identified a plateau where the conditions were unmatched: Chajnantor. In the middle of the Atacama desert in northern Chile, they found a vast expanse of plains at five thousand meters above sea level, where the climate’s extreme aridity presented the perfect conditions for receiving cosmic waves. At high altitude, with a broad surface and favorable climate, ALMA had found its home.

However, they were not the first to discover this key site. Proof of this lies in the origin of the word Chajnantor, meaning “launch site” in the Kunza language of the Atacameños, or Likan Antai, the original indigenous people who have been coming to this site to scrutinize the heavens for centuries.

It was here in the Control Room that astronomers and operators conduct and check scientific observations and monitor equipment (antennas, receptors and correlator), the climatic conditions in the site where the antennas are installed, and also perform an initial assessment of the quality of data obtained. Most of ALMA’s staff members are in fact engineers who maintain and improve ALMA’s performance, not astronomers, or astrophysicists, conducting observations. The control room typically hosts two telescope operators and two astronomers on shift at any one time. During the day, they mostly repair any issues that may arise, and in the afternoon, they restart the system, conduct initial checks and then begin observations at early evening.

ALMA has received a lot of attention in recent Months, and it’s thoroughly well deserved. The Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) — a planet-scale array of eight ground-based radio telescopes forged through international collaboration — was designed to capture images of a black hole, that resides 55 million light-years from Earth and has a mass 6.5 billion times that of the Sun. On the 10th April 2019, in coordinated press conferences across the globe, EHT researchers revealed that they had succeeded, unveiling the first direct visual evidence of a supermassive black hole and its shadow.

M87_consensus_image-768x447image credit: Event Horizon Telescope

Creating the EHT was a formidable challenge which required upgrading and connecting a worldwide network of eight pre-existing telescopes deployed at a variety of challenging high-altitude sites. The EHT observations used a technique called very-long-baseline interferometry (VLBI) which synchronises telescope facilities around the world and exploits the rotation of our planet to form one huge, Earth-size telescope observing at a wavelength of 1.3 mm. VLBI allows the EHT to achieve an angular resolution of 20 micro-arcseconds — enough to read a newspaper in New York from a sidewalk café in Paris. The telescopes contributing to this result were the IRAM 30-meter telescope, the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope, the Large Millimeter Telescope Alfonso Serrano, the Submillimeter Array, the Submillimeter Telescope, the South Pole Telescope,  APEX and ALMA.

As the tour of the Control Room concluded, it was our turn to visit the Medical Centre. We each had our blood pressure and heart rate monitored, some more than once, and it is at this stage that we told if we could, or could not proceed to the summit. I passed. But, some had not. Eight from our party of twenty-seven to be exact. Returning to our coach, we noticed that the driver is now equipped with a nasal cannulae to deliver him supplemental oxygen, before we embarked along the dirt road that snakes its way to the summit. We have gained an extra passenger, a paramedic who, in turn clips a pulse oximeter to our index fingers, which indicates our oxygen saturation level in our blood (relative to our normal level) as we climbed to 5000m. We were then each equipped with a bottle of oxygen which we were instructed to use if our blood-oxygen level fell below 80%, and plenty of bottled water to drink.

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As we slowly gained altitude, first passing 4000m, and then 4500m, the paramedic asked us how we were feeling, and that we were reminded not to get overexcited, not to rush around at any pace faster than a walk when at the summit. Movements should be slow and deliberate.

Looking out of the coach window, at an ascending Sun, its light dancing between the heights of ever rising volcano peaks, our road carving its path between them, our guide who is a working engineer at ALMA, informed us that the OSF site located below us at 2900 meters altitude, was about 9miles away from the closest public road, the Chilean highway No. 23 which passes the Security Gatehouse. The Array Operations Site at the summit is another 17 miles away from the OSF site. Thus, one of the first projects to be accomplished by ALMA was to construct this access road not only to the OSF but also to the AOS road, 26miles in length, not only at high altitudes, but also with sufficient width to regularly transport a large number of large radio telescopes with a diameter of 12 meters. That is where the ALMA transporters, fondly named Otto and Lore, come in. We passed one of these bright yellow behemoths that are able to position the antennas to within a few millimeters, ensuring accurate placement on the antenna foundation pads. These vehicles are 20 metres long, 10 metres wide and 6 metres high, and each has 28 tyres. Even empty, the vehicles weigh in at 130 tonnes apiece, 250 tonnes when transporting a antennae.

We asked how ALMA is staffed when working at such as dangerous altitude, and we were informed that each member of staff work on a roster – eight days working at the site, and six days off work back at sea level. The day that they arrive, they are not allowed to go up to the high site. The second day of their shift, they are allowed to go up for just four hours; the third day for six hours; and from the fourth to the eighth day, a maximum of eight hours. No one is allowed to sleep at the high site.

As our guide was talking, we were suddenly met with the sight of an exposed plateau, vastly flat and open. We had reached 5000m on which stands 66 white ALMA antennae contrasted against the rust coloured basin, and a crisp blue sky.

img_4400image credit: Carol Wright

After another health-check, same procedure as before, we exited the coach and congregated within the AOS. The second highest building in the World of its kind. Human operations at the AOS is limited to an absolute minimum, due to the high altitude. The AOS Technical Building houses the ALMA Correlator, where digitized signals received from the radio telescopes, such as those from the Event Horizon Telescope, are processed and further transmitted to the data storage facilities located at the OSF. The AOS is permanently oxygenated (they have a liquid oxygen plant installed), and yet, it is in this place, looking out across the plateau, that some of our group begin to feel unwell. Since we had traveled from 2900 to 5100 metres above sea level in just 45 minutes, we were exposed to hypoxia. Hypoxia is a deficiency in the amount of oxygen that reaches the body’s tissues. The severity of its effects depends on the length of exposure and the person’s physiology. The danger signs of hypoxia include suffering a severe headache, extreme fatigue or breathlessness (especially while resting), and any neurological problems such as stumbling, confusion, and even poor judgment. I caught a friend as she stumbled slightly, and began to lose consciousness. The paramedics were ready for such an event, and she was fitted with a lightweight O2 tank made of carbon fibre, and nasal cannulae identical to our driver’s. After another health check with the pulse oximeter, we walk outside, onto the plateau itself.

alma landscapeimage credit: pcdphotography

Standing atop this lonely hill, my heart slow, breath near still, standing tall and straight, arms out wide, close to some of the antennae, we each began to take photos and speak with our guide. Up close we notice there are subtle differences between the antennae, depending on whether they are European, American, or Japanese design. Parts are being constantly modified and designed so we can meet with the requirement of ESO’s scientific clients, and many parts that were supposed to last a certain amount of years are actually lasting half of that time. Without warning the antennae began to move, slowly, methodically, systematically – Astronomy in action, in real time, the best facility of it’s kind in the World.

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Hot when it was frigid cold. A warm breeze drifted through the plateau and carried some of the snow and ice with it. I found myself looking at my feet, at my footsteps whilst walking through the snow, carrying my camera in hand wishing to fully capture the sight that I encountered in this harshest of retreats. We were soon called back to our coach, as unbeknownst to me more of our group had been fitted with nasal cannulaes and were carrying O2 tanks on their backs, and we had reached our maximum time of two hours permitted at this altitude.

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Despite the high altitude, I had felt relatively normal, it did seem that being up there had felt somewhat like that of a dream like quality. I had felt elated. As we slowly trundled our way back down to the OSF, using our supplemental oxygen as we went, I felt a delight that flowed without measure, before falling into a peaceful, reflective 40 min sleep. I later find that, accompanying my subsequent headache when I returned to the OSF, that suddenly falling asleep is a syndrome of high-altitude de-acclimatization that commonly takes place after exposure to high altitudes upon return to low altitudes. Time to drink some more water, and have some lunch.

We leave ALMA, heading for Calama airport two hours away, and before long we are boarding our plane destined for our return to Santiago, and back to the Hotel Bidaosa. Calama airport usually hosts five fights a day, but due to World descending on Chile for the eclipse earlier in the week, they were now hosting twenty-seven, but our flight was empty and I could stretch out across all three seats, and use the duration of our relatively short flight to look back at my week in relative luxury and comfort.

From La Silla, to Paranal. To ALMA and back again. I have been enchanted. At the culmination of that #MeetESO week, at the end of our exploring, would be to return where we started, and know the place for the first time. The same can be said about my life now. I am changed. It has been a journey to the interior, into my own heart and mind. The invention of a new form, or a novel combination of the old. You see, with life being an unfoldment, the further we travel, the more we can comprehend; That is what it all comes down too, comprehension. It is where the feelings of awe and wonder begin. I have an overwhelming feeling of reverence, having made friends for life, a family that can always say, we were there. An overwhelming feeling of appreciation I find difficult to put into words.

The European Southern Observatory chose us to journey with them to the last outpost of all that is. To a seemingly otherworldly destination. A place of stark, and beautiful desolation with an incomparable sense of space. And yet, in this place we were gifted with the company of people and their state-of-the-art astronomical facilities. Yes humankind’s journey, our endeavour if you will, in my humble opinion is to go beyond our home planet, and in the greatest tradition of exploration, past, present and future, it is astronauts that will continue to be enduring catalysts for inspiring the next generation in our quest to unravel the mysteries of the Universe. But, ESO prove a very good point; a telescope will always be more powerful than a rocket, because we will always be able to see farther than we can ever travel.

And I have been there. To the very place where we as a species are learning more about who we are, why we are here, and how the Earth among other things got here in the first place. Engineering, technology and science revolutionise our lives, yet they are but one tool for what it is really all about. It is the interpretation of life, its instrument is insight. Humans have always used our intelligence and creativity to improve our existence. We experienced this. We felt it for ourselves during #MeetESO.

My dear ESO, I shall never forgive you for teaching me how to love life.

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Featured image credit: pcdphotography

2 thoughts on “Destination Chile – Visiting the European Southern Observatory with #MeetESO (long read)

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