Mon, 12 Feb 2018
Long known for its copper, sea bass and merlot wine, Chile’s most profound export may be data that its astronomical observatories mine nightly from its pristine skies.
Exoplanet hunters at ESO’s La Silla Observatory in Chile.
Because Chile’s ground-based window onto our Milky Way’s galactic center is arguably unmatched, the European Southern Observatory (ESO) first set up shop here more than a half century ago. Today, their 15 member states enjoy facilities at three major observatories.
“ESO spends 80 million euros [$100 million] a year for its operations in Chile and is the biggest astronomical operation here,” astrophysicist Fernando Comeron, ESO’s Representative in Chile, told me during a recent visit to ESO’s offices in Vitacura, a tony enclave of Santiago.
To its credit, ESO never rests on its laurels. When I first arrived here two decades ago during research for my book “Distant Wanderers,” I was amazed that even before ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) was finished, there was already talk of the next big thing.
Initially, that next big thing was to be a 100-meter Overwhelming Large Telescope (OWL). But after several years of study, ESO put that concept in stasis and instead pursued a project that it felt was more practical and technologically feasible. Thus, in 2014, ESO broke ground for its European-Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT) at Paranal Observatory in northern Chile’s Atacama desert.
Due for scientific first light in November 2024, once completed it will be the world’s largest optical/infrared telescope. That is, a $1.4 billion behemoth with a 39.3-meter primary mirror; itself a composition of 798 individual 1.4-meter segments.
The best telescopes in the world are now in the Southern hemisphere , says Comeron, noting that the Chilean government takes its responsibility in preserving observing conditions very seriously. In fact, he says, even through the country’s turbulent political history, ESO continued to function here.
“We have 50 years of dealing with the Chilean government and it’s been a very fruitful relationship and is not subjected to changes of government or politics,” said Comeron.
Credit: Francisco Rodriguez Irigoyen/ESO.
Fernando Comeron, the European Southern Observatory’s Representative in Chile, and author at ESO’s Santiago offices.
And more are coming. The E-ELT and other new telescopes being built in Chile, like the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) and the Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT), are forever changing the Chilean astronomical landscape.
“The Chilean astronomy community is growing; universities are opening undergraduate and graduate programs in astronomy and attracting international researchers to be part of their institutions,” Barbara Rojas-Ayala, an astronomer at the Universidad Andrés Bello in Santiago, told me.
What makes Chile so astronomically special?
Very dry northern deserts which border a lengthy coastline and the Humboldt Current.
The Humboldt Current, sometimes referred to as the Peru Current, is a 550-mile-wide cold ocean current that originates in Antarctica and runs north along the South American coastline. Its temperatures help keep Chile’s northern desert air even drier. Cloud cover is confined to altitudes of about 3000 feet, says Comeron.
As a result, he says you find very dry conditions at much lower altitudes in Chile. But it’s also [...]