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Northern Chile - Observing from the Atacama Desert

Booking the trip

I can't recall where I first saw the advertisement, but it showed beautiful pictures of sights in the Andes and incredible Milky Way pictures with the river of stars stretching all the way from horizon to horizon. The trip was sponsored by a Canadian group with Terrance Dickenson as the name draw. Steve Barnes was the person who handled all the details. Their website advertisement is at
The bottom line is that EVERYTHING WAS AS ADVERTISED!
So I booked the trip, got my airline tickets and, when March 29 rolled around, took my 12.5-inch portable dob to the Atacama desert.

Space Lodge and the Night Sky

A very funny and knowledgeable Frenchman named Alain Maury has built an astronomy resort in the Atacama where he as a dozen or more large (up to 25") telescopes for rent. Additionally, there are comfortable lodges to sleep in that sporadically have hot water in the shower. I lodged in a very nice adobe 'cabin' with four other fellows, all Canadian. Two were visual observers (Brian and Jeff) and two came to do photography (John and Malcolm). Even though there were scopes for rent (24" is $130/night; 17" is $95/night; contact Alain at to set up a rental),I brought my own 12.5" dob. Space Lodge is near San Pedro de Atacama, at 23 degrees south latitude, so the entire southern sky is visible. One night Alain gave us a humorous and very interesting tour of the night sky and we got to look through many of his scopes, including amazing views of Omega Centauri through a 24" dob.

Four Space Lodge Telescopes - All made by Alain

The Amazing Night Sky

We had 9 nights of observing scheduled. All were beautifully clear except one. The one night with clouds we stayed in our lodge deciding to try out the excellent Chilean wines. But, at 9:30 someone knocked on our door saying "The clouds are all gone!" So much for cloudy weather in the Atacama desert. However, to be fair, I had correspondence with Tom Polakis who went there in May and had 5 of 8 nights cloudy. So, I think the Canadians know when the sky is the clearest. Space Lodge is at 8000 feet and the Atacama desert is the driest spot on earth, so the sky was absolutely perfect. As good as the Australian outback. John, one of my roommates, took wide-angle photos of the Milky Way that came out very well. Notice, in the leftmost picture below, that the stars can be seen right down to the horizon. On the right of the Milky Way picture you can see the Large Magellenic cloud and below,the Small Magellenic Cloud. Also there was a tiny light dome, seen in center of the horizon, that is a lithium mine some 20 miles south. That light dome had no effect on observing. The light dome on the right is Calama and was not visible from where I set up my telescope. The lights on the lower left are from the assembly facility for ALMA where they build the big radio telescope dishes for the array, which is over the mountains towards Bolivia. Those lights were not seen from where I set up my telescope. Importantly, the Milky Way was big and bright. The bright spot in the upper portion is the Carina nebula and the dark region in the center is the Coal Sack. The two bright stars below and to the left of the Coal Sack are alpha and beta Centauri. If you know the "hocky stick" asterism to get to omega Centauri, you can see it to the left of the Coal Sack. Alpha and Beta Centauri form the puck-hitting part of the hocky stick and the top of the handle is o-Cent. In the center picture is a nice shot of omega Centauri by another roommate Malcolm Jardine. The rightmost picture is Centaurus A, the spectacularly irregular galaxy that is the source of much radio noise. These pictures were taken with a Takahashi F102Q that Malcolm rented for several nights.

These are each great pictures but, to be honest, the live views seemed even better to me.

Canon 50D, 16 mm lens, iso 3200, ~30 sec - John Centauri and Centaurus A - Tak F102Q - Malcolm Jardine

I set my telescope up in an area that had this great southern horizon and left it up till I had to pack up on the last night. Two of my roommates (Brian and Jeff) kept me company most nights and we worked through literally hundreds of objects. First (and many times) we observed the 'top tier' objects that included omega Centauri, Centaurus A, the Carina nebula, the Tarantula nebula, the LMC with all its myriad nebula and clusters, 49 Tucanae, etc, etc, etc. These were nothing short of spectacular. Omega Centauri, in particular, looks better in the eyepiece that even the best photographs. The view of this object through my 12.5" actually seemed as good as that through the 24". But less bright objects, such as Thor's helmet were definitely better in the larger scopes.

My 12.5" with the Andes in the background

I had xeroxed all of the relevant C charts from the Herald-Bobroff Astro Atlas and these worked well to navigate the southern sky. We often generated lists of objects that we tried to find. We did find essentially all of the globular clusters on the C charts, probably more than forty. We spent a lot of time combing through the Large Magellenic Cloud and, to do this, I found the charts in the H-B Astro Atlas not so good. But, I had xeroxed the LMC maps from the new Night Sky Observer's Guide (vol 3; southern hemisphere) which were extremely helpful. I was able to navigate and identify dozens of nebulae and clusters with this map. One of the most spectacular objects in the southern sky is the Carina nebula, with eta Carina its bright spot. We could see the humunculus around the star when we got the magnification above 200. But the entire nebula is so amazingly bright and large that it dwarfs the nebula in Orion.

Lots of Daytime Activities Too

During the day Steve organized optional trips that we could go on, or not if you were too sleep deprived. The first was to the Valley of the Moon. A pretty cool and unusual landscape. Worth going to. We hiked to the top of a ridge and watched the sun set on the Andes.

Valley of the Moon with the Andes in the background

One trip to Tulor, ancient ruins of an Andean civilization, was less impressive and I skipped altogether a trip to another set of ruins, Quitor. Folks who went said I made a good decision. On the other hand, a trip to Miscani and Miniques lagoons was really special. These lakes, at 14,000 feet are formed by glacial runoff and are a beautiful greenish-blue, with fabulous, snow-capped peaks in the background. There were a half-dozen vicuna lounging around the lake and we saw a herd of llama on the way back.

Miscanti Lagoon with the Andes in the background

Another worthwhile day trip was to the Geysers/Puritama Hot Springs. We caught a bus from the lodge 2 hours before dawn and were driven up (14,000 feet again) to a set of fumaroles that were very impressive. The sunrise was beautiful with the Andes all around and the steaming, boiling water lending the area an otherworldly atomosphere. The bus driver made us a great breakfast that included hard boiled eggs and hot chocolate that he made by putting the eggs and containers of hot chocolate in a net basket and lowering them into a boiling fumarole. Impressive and very welcome in the freezing morning. If you were brave enough, there was a swimming hole, fed by the hot springs that you could swim in.

Fumarole at Puritama Hot Springs

The Last Night

On several occasions we bummed rides into San Pedro to sightsee, shop, and get dinner or groceries. The lodge had a fine kitchen and we cooked (often leftovers from dinner the night before) and were able to have breakfast and lunch always at the lodge. On the last night lots of folks congregated around my telescope where we just talked and occasionally looked at some top tier object, which included Saturn as well. It was a relaxing evening with new friends. Very enjoyable. I broke down the scope around 2:00, packed up and was ready to catch the bus to the Calama airport before dawn. All-in-all, a very enjoyable trip. I would do it again and am thinking about spring 2013.

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