Friday, 29 June 2012

Gemini Visit

The Journey There...

I got up bright and early today to be at the Gemini offices to meet Manuel Paredes, who would be my guide at Gemini today. Thankfully, I survived rush-hour in La Serena (in my ute!) and made it on time - only made one small error in directions, which I managed to correct very easily.

Once I had met Manuel, I had to go and get my authorisation signed off, which consisted of providing my passport number and the vehicle registration number, then signing a form, which I had to hand in at the gate of the road to the telescope.

We headed off on the road towards Vicuña. About half way between La Serena and Vicuña we took a turning off to the right onto a dirt track, which we followed for not very long before getting to the gate to the road up to Cerro Pachon and Tololo. I handed over my authorisation papers, got told the rules of the road by Manuel and we set off - me following Manuel through a cloud of dust!

The road pretty much all the way to the telescope is just a dirt track, but a reasonably well-maintained one. Even so, by the time I got to the top my ute was no longer quite as shiny and I had lots of dust up my nose!

Inside The Building

So, here I was, at almost 2700m, and at my first professional observatory - how exciting! And from the outside, the size was impressive, but kind of what I expected. It was VERY windy at the top, so we didn't hang around outside for too long.

We headed indoors and first went to the 'Crew Room' which is a mixture of a coffee room and a video-con meeting room. We met a few of the daytime staff - engineers - of whom there are about 15 who work there each day. And they travel there and back every day. At many other observatories, the daytime engineers work in shifts, but not these guys. One guy told me his typical day is about 14 hours long if you include the travel there and back!

Manuel told me a bit about Gemini-S and N, and the history of the telescopes. Construction on Gemini-S started in around 1995. One of the engineers told us that one year they had to stop construction completely, and close the site down for the Winter, as the snow storms were so bad. First light for Gemini-S was around 2002.

After this, Manuel took me around the various different bits of the building...we'll start with the best!

The Telescope

Gemini-S telescope - with me for scale!
The size of the telescope did, of course, impress me. I had an idea what it would be like, having seen instruments like KMOS and SCUBA 2 in the lab back in Edinburgh, but still, my first time standing looking up at such a large telescope will be a memory I keep for a long time.

The room is very cold - must remember to take gloves with me when I go to visit Paranal! I knew it would be, since the telescope needs to be maintained at the same temperature as outside, but it really was chilly! Manuel explained that everything in the telescope dome is painted with a special paint which has low heat emissivity, to help keep it all at a low temperature.

Underneath the telescope (just above my head in the photo) the instruments are attached. Gemini can work with up to 5 different instruments in one night. Currently it has just 3 instruments attached - GMOS (mentioned in my last blog post), a calibration instrument (the 1st thing which is needed to be done each night is to calibrate the telescope), and NICI which is a coronograph used to find exoplanets.

Gemini currently uses Active Optics to compensate for the atmospheric distortions. I must admit, active optics is not something I am particularly familiar with, but from what I have understood (from Manuel and a bit of googling!) it is a technology which uses natural stars and deformable mirrors to calibrate for the distortions. They are also in the commissioning phase of an adaptive optics system called GeMS, which uses a laser guide to create 5 laser guide stars, and again, deformable mirrors. It is the only adaptive optics system in the world currently which has 5 laser guide stars, and it has 5 because of the large field of view the telescope has. They are hopeful it will be finished the commissioning phase and being used for science next year sometime.

The telescope weighs around 300 tonnes and sits on a pillar which goes around 11m into the mountain. This is for earthquake protection. This design means that the telescope can withstand an earthquake that measures up to 8 on the Richter Scale.

To move the telescope with high precision and accuracy, the telescope's hydraulics system involves a layer of oil on which the telescope sits. In theory, if you remove all the brakes from the telescope, you could move this 300 ton piece of equipment with one hand - impressive!

The Control Room

On any given observing night (and in theory Gemini is used for observing 365 nights of the year - of course there are occasions when the telescope needs to be closed for maintenance, or adverse weather) there are 2 people working in the control room. The astronomer, who controls the instrument, and the Supporting Officer who controls the telescope. At the end of the day shift, there is a handover from the engineers to the astronomer and supporting officer, basically to say that the telescope is good for use. This is why the engineers are there every day - to ensure the telescope is good for using all night for observing.

Once GeMS is up and running for science, there will be 2 more people working each night. One to operate the laser and another, a 'spotter'. The 'spotter' has to keep an eye out for any planes flying overhead!

On an average night, 7GB of data are collected, which are sent via a microweb to La Serena and then on to the data archive in Victoria, Canada. A principal investigator can have access to their rough data from their observation just 5 minutes after the observation has been done.

The Mirror

I think the mirror deserves a section all of its own as I found this the most fascinating and interesting aspect of the telescope.

The primary mirror, or M1 as it is referred to in the field, is 8.2m in diameter, and weighs 20 tonnes. During the day it is covered up to save it getting any unnecessary dust on it. Manuel removed the cover of the mirror a little so I could see it:
The very shiny M1
The secondary mirror, M2, sits at the top of the telescope structure:
Shiny M2 with M1 reflected in it
M1 is coated with silver, for a number of reasons. Firstly, silver has low heat emissivity, so helps to keep the whole structure cool. Secondly, silver is very reflective and particularly for infrared light - more so than Aluminium for example. However, silver also oxidates quite quickly with humidity, so this means that the mirror needs to be re-coated every so often. I'll come on to the re-coating process in a bit!

M1 gets cleaned every Thursday, using carbon dioxide. The mirror is tilted to 90° and the CO2 is applied, freezing the particles of dust, which then fall off the surface of the mirror. Additionally, every 6 months, the mirror is cleaned with water, soap and mops!

The re-coating process takes place every 6-10 years, and takes 15 days for the whole thing to be completed...and it's some procedure!

The stages are as follows:
  1. M1 is removed - this involves removing all the instruments from the telescope, then removing the mirror using a big crane. The mirror is lowered down to Level 1 (from Level 4 where the telescope is) and put on a special cart.
  2. The mirror is cleaned with water, soap and mops
  3. It is then dried by laying paper (the same sort of paper towels we would dry our hands with) over it
  4. Acid is applied over the paper, which removes the silver layer, then the paper is removed, and the mirror is washed again with distilled water. At this stage, the mirror is transparent as it doesn't have the silver reflective layer anymore. It is still slightly reflective but if you put your hand underneath it, you would see it through.
  5. M1 is then dried with the 'Air Knife' which is basically like a big hairdryer
  6. M1 is picked up by the crane which has a 'grabber' attached to it - a bit like the arm in one of those fairground games where you have to try and pick up a cuddly toy to win it by controlling the arm
  7. The cart M1 was sitting on is moved to another room and the bottom section of the coating chamber is put in its place
  8. M1 is lowered into this chamber and the chamber is closed up
  9. A vacuum is created inside the chamber, removing any humidity and air.
  10. Then the coating process is started - this involves 3 magnetrons, one for each of the materials which is to be coated on the mirror. Sadly, I didn't understand fully the process of the sputter coating using the magnetron....need to do some more research I think!
In the end, the mirror gets a coating of first nickel chromium (as an adhesive), then the silver, then another coating of nickel chromium and finally a protective layer of silicon is applied. This layer is 1000 times thinner than a human hair!

I had a fantastic day at Gemini and found it so interesting. Huge thanks to Manuel for being a great guide...I'm looking forward even more to my visits to the other observatories!

Just to top the day off, on the journey back I saw another of those South American Gray Foxes, and this time I managed to get a picture...

For those who are interested, I'll be posting all my photos from Gemini on my flickr account - see the link on the right hand menu.

Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Pending Professional Observatory Visits

I'm getting very excited about my pending visits to various professional observatories here in Chile. Over the next 2 weeks I'll be visiting Gemini, ALMA and Paranal.

This coming Friday I will visit the Gemini Observatory, which is situated on Cerro Pachón, at 2700m. As the name would suggest, Gemini is one of a pair of telescopes, the other situated on Mauna Kea, Hawaii, at 4200m. Each telescope has an 8.1m diameter mirror and are optical/infrared telescopes. With their respective locations, they can collectively observe the entire sky.

You can find out more about the Gemini Observatories here: Introduction to Gemini

Both of the Gemini telescopes have an instrument called GMOS, which scientists and engineers at the UK Astronomy Technology Centre helped to build. GMOS is a multi-object spectrograph and camera. The multi-object mode of GMOS allows astronomers to obtain spectra of hundreds of objects simultaneously.
GMOS being installed at Gemini S (copyright UK ATC)
During the commissioning of GMOS-S, this image of the Hickson Compact Group 87 (HCG87) was obtained - previously only seen from space. HCG87 is a diverse group of galaxies located about 400 million light years away in the direction of the constellation Capricornus.
The Hickson Compact Group as taken with GMOS-S
Another multi-object spectrograph which the UK Astronomy Technology Centre have been heavily involved with is KMOS, which is heading to Paranal later this year - another place I'll be visiting soon. The Paranal Observatory is managed by ESO, a research organisation for astronomy, supported by fifteen countries. Paranal is at an altitude of 2635m and is home to various telescopes. The most well-known of these is the VLT or Very Large Telescope. The VLT consists of four 8.2m telescopes, each given names of object in the sky in the Mapuche language - Antu, Kueyen, Melipal and Yepun.

Sadly I'll be at Paranal before KMOS, as it would have been great to see it installed having seen it for all these past months seeing it being built and tested in the labs in Edinburgh. KMOS will be installed on the telescope called ANTU (The Sun in Mapuche) at the VLT.

KMOS has 24 robotic arms, which means it can obtain spectra for 24 different objects in one observation.
KMOS and its 24 arms
The capability of KMOS will allow astronomers to further investigate star and galaxy formation and evolution. 

As well as seeing the Very Large Telescope, I'm also hopeful I'll get to see VISTA at Paranal - a 4m wide field survey telescope, the project management of the design and construction of which, the UK ATC was responsible for. Not long after I started work at the Royal Observatory Edinburgh, VISTA was being shipped out to Chile, so it would be amazing to see it in its home.

Being a survey telescope means that VISTA maps the sky systematically, sometimes studying small patches of sky for long periods to detect extremely faint objects and at other times surveying the entire southern sky. One such survey VISTA has been doing is that of the Magellanic Clouds - our neighbouring galaxies. The results obtained from this survey are allowing astronomers (including Dr Chris Evans, based at the UK Astronomy Technology Centre) to study not only the inner regions of the Tarantula nebula (within the Large Magellanic Cloud) but also to study the multitude of smaller stellar nurseries nearby. These studies will allow astronomers to look into the regions where massive stars are still forming and look at the interactions between these and the older stars in the wider region.

VISTA Magellanic Cloud Survey view of the Tarantula Nebula (credit ESO)

One thing I really hope to see in action during my overnight stay at Paranal is the laser guide star of the VLT's adaptive optics system. This would be absolutely amazing to see.
VLT Laser Guide Star in Action (credit ESO)
Adaptive Optics is a technology used on telescopes to help remove the distortions caused by turbulence in the atmosphere. This turbulence is what causes the stars to 'twinkle' and, for astronomers, causes blurring of images. By using a laser guide star and a deformable mirror, corrections can be made for the atmospheric distortions.

Between my visits to Gemini and Paranal, I'll be visiting ALMA - a different sort of telescope altogether. ALMA is an array of radio telescopes, which work at millimetre and submillimeter wavelengths, and is the current largest ground-based astronomical installation in the world. When complete, it will consist of 66 dishes acting as a single giant telescope, using interferometry. Because it is an array, it will have greater sensitivity and higher resolution than existing submillimetre telescopes, like the James Clark Maxwell Telescope in Hawaii (on which SCUBA 2 is installed - another instrument built by the UK ATC). The ALMA site is on the Chajnantor Plain in the Atacama Desert at an altitude of 5000m.

Interferometry works on the basis of two or more separate telescopes combining their signals, offering a resolution equivalent to that of a telescope of diameter equal to the largest separation between its individual elements. It requires high precision engineering as all 66 antennae must work in complete synchrony with a precision of one millionth of a millionth of a second. Also, the path followed by the signal from each antennae to the central computer must be known with an accuracy equivalent to the width of a human hair - not much room for error.

These 66 antennae will be able to be moved to span an area of 10 miles at its largest, creating nearly 71,000 square feet of radio light collecting area.

Currently there are 34 antennae in position and already the Early Science phase has produced some fantastic results. One such result is the observation of some of the dust ring around Formalhaut - a star around which there are planets - which has led to some exciting developments. Astronomers had already obtained direct images of this system, but the new observations by ALMA, along with computer simulations, have helped to determine that the 2 planets orbiting the star are actually much smaller than it was originally thought. This observation was done when only a quarter of ALMA's antennae were in place...just imagine what it will help to discover in the coming years!
ALMA's observations of dust ring around Formalhaut. Blue image shows earlier image obtained by Hubble (credit ESO)
I look forward to blogging about my visits to these magnificent observatories!!

Sampling the local tipple

Yesterday I took a trip to Pisco Elqui in the Elqui Valley, which has been renamed in honour of the local tipple in Chile - Pisco.

Pisco Elqui
Pisco Elqui is a very cute village and I'd definitely like to return there once I'm back in this area after my time up north. I had a wander around the village and found out about the various things one can do as a tourist there, including hiring a bike to travel to Los Nichos, a nearby village which has the oldest pisco distillery in Chile. I also found out that there was an observatory visit scheduled for last night from Pisco Elqui, but since I didn't know in advance, I couldn't go - it would have been tricky for me to get back to Vicuña at midnight. But I shall keep it in mind and I think I'll make a point of staying a night or 2 in Pisco Elqui on my return.

After I'd had a wee wander, I stopped for some lunch - a delicious platter called 'El Pangue' (the name of one of the observatories I'll be visiting!) which had a mixture of pastes/dips, olives and goats cheese. It was possibly the healthiest meal I've had since getting to Chile and totally yummy!

After lunch I decided to do a tour of the Mistral distillery, in Spanish. I could have waited until 3:30pm for an English tour, but I'm trying to challenge myself to get more familiar with the local lingo and I do understand a lot already...just need to get more confidence with the speaking.

Anyway, as it turned out, I had the tour all to myself, and my guide was very good and spoke at a really nice pace so I think I understood about 95% of what she said. The Mistral distillery is a really pretty place, and has a museum with various historical artefacts which used to be used in the distillation process.

Old distillation equipment

Grounds of the Mistral Distillery
After the tour, I got to see a small exhibition of barrels an artist has converted into visual art:

And finally tried my first taste of Pisco... The guide gave me 2 different ones to try, both straight. The first one, reminded me of whisky and I wasn't mad keen on it. It was a bit harsh to drink straight for my liking. The second one was a lot smoother. Still possibly a bit too strong for me to enjoy straight, but it went down easier.

At the end of the tour I was able to go to the bar and get a free Pisco that I did like!!! I chatted to the barmaid for a while, who was born and raised in Pisco Elqui. I told her how I couldn't imagine a life without rain!! 

A Starlab show for the Southern Hemisphere

On Monday I was invited to accompany Dalma Valenzuela from the Gemini outreach team to a local school with their Starlab planetarium.

I went to the Gemini offices in La Serena for 9:45am - just a short 20 minute walk from my hostel - where I met Maria Antonietta Garcia, Manuel Paredes and Dalma, all from the Gemini PR and Outreach team. The site where the offices are was bigger than I imagined, but as the security officer explained, there are also houses of those who work at AURA on site.

Dalma and I headed off to the school at about 10:15am, and it was only about a 15 minute drive away. The school is in a suburb of La Serena and is for pupils right from 'Pre-Kinder' (age 3-4 years) to about 17 years. It is a school for pupils from economically challenging backgrounds.

Getting the Starlab set-up with eager helpers
Once we found the school and the best entrance - Dalma has exactly the same issues as we do when visiting schools: making sure you get the vehicle as close to the school as possible is always a requirement - 4 early secondary students came to help unloading the van. Dalma has an original Starlab with tunnel entrance, and considering the places she has been with it, it's in exceptionally good condition!

Dalma puts down a sort of soft 'astroturf' section onto the hard floor of the hall so the pupils have a reasonably soft surface to sit on - perhaps something we could consider doing, although many times we are in a carpeted room so the floor isn't too uncomfortable to sit on.

Once we were all set up, the first class arrived. This was a 'Pre-Kinder' class of about 30 students aged about 4 years old. They were quite lively and didn't really follow instruction well in terms of sitting in the right place!! But Dalma is clearly well-used to this and was extremely patient with them. They were very sweet it has to be said.

Dalma did a fairly brief 'show' which started with the star cylinder (of course showing the southern hemisphere stars). Dalma had the Moon visible and did something which I had never considered doing before, but which worked extremely well and which I think we really should do, particularly with the younger years. She has the Moon showing, and explains the phases by covering up a bit of the hole on the cylinder which is acting as the Moon to show half moon and crescent moon. She gets the pupils to shout out New Moon and Full Moon when she shows these phases. Really works well and so simple to do.

After showing the pupils the Southern Cross and explaining about how you can use it to find South, she then swapped over the cylinders to show the pictures of the constellations (this time the cylinder is actually for the northern hemisphere) and she goes through the zodiac constellations, pointing out which ones you can see in which seasons. She also points out Orion's belt (or the 3 Marias as they call it here) and tells the pupils this can be seen in the summer, but to notice that Orion disappears below the horizon at times.

Dalma even got me involved with the Starlab shows. She explained that since I am from the Northern Hemisphere I see different a different night sky to the pupils. I introduced myself, and said that I am from Scotland and then pointed out Ursa Major and Minor, saying that I can see these all year round, but that I can never see the Southern Cross.

The final class getting seated for their show
It was a great experience to be out with Dalma, and to see the similarities in what we do, despite the different hemispheres! Also great to get the idea about the Moon - I think primary teachers would appreciate that addition to a Starlab show.

Dalma and I talked a bit about schools in Chile and Scotland, and Dalma told me that class sizes in state schools in Chile can be as big as 45 pupils, even into secondary school.

Normally Dalma goes out about 2-3 days per week to schools, and if it is to a local school, she goes alone (but always getting pupil helpers to unload). If she is going further afield (she has been to Argentina, Uruguay and Easter Island with the Starlab) then Manuel would go with her too.

When I return to the La Serena area after my time up north, I hope to go out again with Dalma, perhaps to a secondary school.

Sunday, 24 June 2012

Observatorio Mamalluca

Last night I visited the Observatorio Mamalluca, which is situated just outside of Vicuña and is a public observatory.

I did this trip through an agency, but it is also possible to go as an individual. The observatory organises a mini-bus to take people from Vicuña.

I was already extremely excited as we journeyed towards the observatory and spent most of my time looking out of the window of the minibus, delighted by the clear skies!

As we started onto the road up to Mamalluca, we had to put the bus headlamps onto just sidelights and drove up what looked like a runway, with green lights either side of the road to guide us.

The Mamalluca Observatory is a well-oiled machine indeed, and I was extremely impressed. There were probably around 60 visitors that evening and we were split into 2 groups - one large group of those who would take the tour in Spanish and a smaller group (around 17 people) who would take it in English. I opted for the English tour as I wanted to actually get to grips with the southern skies and I figured I'd have more chance of that in my own language!

We had a little time to have a look in the visitor centre, which had a few interactive computer games for children and some nice displays, as well as a small cafeteria and gift shop.

At 9pm, our guide (Jamie, I think, but it may have been a Spanish name which sounded like that!) led our group towards another building for the start of our tour. The Spanish group stayed in the visitor centre where there was also a lecture theatre type space - they would have a presentation first. We were getting to do the observing first!

We started outside with a 10" (approximately) reflector and Jamie lined it up to observe the Moon, which would shortly dip behind the mountain, so she explained that we had to start with that. Whilst each person had a look at the Moon, Jamie continued to talk to the group about the features of the Moon, every so often checking that it was still visible through the telescope. She was very good at keeping the group's attention whilst they were waiting to observe. The group was mostly adults, but there were a couple of kids.

Once everyone had seen the Moon in the telescope, Jamie offered, for those who wanted, to take a picture of the Moon with their cameras. Of course, I was thrilled at this prospect and thought it was a great touch - it was such a quick and easy thing for her to do, and fantastic for people to have something to take away with them.
My Moon image!
After this, we moved inside the dome to use the automated 40cm telescope. In here, Jamie showed us Saturn (probably the best view I've ever had of Saturn - the rings were really clearly visible), all the while, again talking to the group whilst people were taking their turn to observe.

She then rotated the dome and set the telescope to view the Carinae Nebula, and explained to the group the life cycle of stars, and the concept of light years, and how the nebula probably isn't there anymore.
Mamalluca's largest telescope

After viewing these 2 objects, we returned outside to a different reflector telescope (probably again about 10") and observed some more objects with the telescope - first NGC 4755, or the Jewel Box (an open cluster), and then, my favourite view of the evening, Omega Centauri (a globular cluster). Omega Centauri was just amazing to view.

Jamie then did some naked eye observing with us, using her laser to point things out. She showed us the zodiac constellations of Sagittarius, Scorpio, Libra and Virgo, pointed out the Southern Cross and gave instructions on how to find south from it, and she pointed out Saturn and Mars to us too. She gave useful information about naked observing, like how to tell a star from a planet and that its best to observe when there is no Moon.

When telling us about the constellations, she made the observation that these patterns had been made up by people in the northern hemisphere (i.e. Greeks or Romans) and told us a little of what patterns the Andean Indigenous people had seen. Instead of using the stars to make patterns, they saw things in the dark patches of the Milky Way. I remember that this is similar to the Indigenous people of Australia.

The Andean people see a llama, a fox and a snake in the dark areas - some are easier to see than others, but then I guess the same is true for the Greek/Roman constellations. I remember the indigenous people of Australia see an emu where the Andean's see a llama.

Jamie then led us back inside and gave us a presentation, which started with Stellarium. She gave a quick introduction to the main features of Stellarium, which was really good. After this, she did a presentation which went through various different things. It started with some information about the history of telescopes and how a reflector telescope works (this was a nice touch, and not too complicated). She then spoke of some of the big telescopes in Chile, like the VLT and showed various pictures and animations of them. She also then spoke about the E-ELT.

She finished with an animation about the scale of our Solar System, then different stars, and then finally the whole Universe. She finished by saying how she had enjoyed working with us and that she hoped we had enjoyed the evening. And that if we got lost on the way home...we always have the Southern Cross to help us!

The whole experience was about 2 hours long and really was fantastic. I think splitting the group in 2 worked very well, and could work for our activities at the Royal Observatory Edinburgh too - even though we have less visitors in one session, I still think it could be advantageous. I suppose the only downside we have is the weather - at Mamalluca, they didn't have to worry about clouds coming in and the second group not getting the chance to observe.

The experience made me think about how we could incorporate the new IfA telescope into the Friday night sessions and some other ways we could potentially make the whole experience even better for our visitors.

All in all a very inspiring trip - I'm looking forward to visiting more tourist observatories later in my trip. 

Oh, and I did try my hand at some astrophotography, and I thought at least one of the milky way had come out okay, but when I looked at them on the laptop, they don't look so great, hence why I haven't included any on this post.

Saturday, 23 June 2012

The Humboldt Penguin National Reserve

Yesterday I took a day trip to visit the Humboldt Penguin National Reserve. I'm a bit of a fan of penguins so I was quite excited to do this trip.

We set off from La Serena at about 8:45am and drove along the Panamerican Highway for about an hour. Then we turned off onto a pretty rough road towards Punta de Choros where we would get the boat out to the islands.

Along the way, the scenery was fantastic and we saw some great fauna. I got see my first Chilean guanacos in the wild.

Guanacos in the wild

Cool scenery
We also saw lots of vultures and even a type of fox - I think it was a South American Grey Fox, but I couldn't be sure. Unfortunately, I didn't get a picture of it.

We got a boat out to Isla Choros, which is the Humboldt Penguin National Reserve. It is fair to say the sea was a little choppy! Thankfully, I didn't feel ill but there were a few hairy moments and the boat wasn't exactly a big boat compared to the swell!

But, we made it and finally got a glimpse of the Humboldt Penguins.
Some Humboldt Penguins
We only saw about 9 penguins altogether but we also saw lots of cormorants, some sealions and a few sea otters, which were gorgeous (but too quick for me to get a picture of!).

After sailing close to the coast of Isla Choros for a while, we then went to Ilsa Damas where we docked for an hour and were left to wander around. It is a stunning little island (only 2km long) with a couple of nice beaches and some cool rock formations.

A little windswept

After the hour on Isla Damas we boarded the boat once more and headed back across the choppy sea to shore, where we saw some pelicans.

We headed back towards home, stopping off on the way for a late lunch of empanadas (cameron queso for me) followed by some delicious swordfish.

La Serena

After my few days in Santiago, I got the bus to La Serena, to place myself firmly in the Astrotourism area of Chile for a wee while.

The bus journey took about 7 hours and was fine really as South America is well-equipped with extremely comfortable buses. In fact, in Chile they have different classes of bus tickets you can buy. The Classico is the cheapest and is basically a seat like you would expect on a National Express coach, except a bit comfier.

The next class up is the Semi-Cama, which is what I went for, and involved a slightly larger seat, with much more ability to recline the seat and a comfortable foot rest. After this there is the Cama option, in which, from what I have understood, your seat is as close to a bed as you could imagine on a bus!

Anyway, the scenery along the way changed a lot. Most of the journey was along the coast, but to the east there were vast areas of desert at times, with very little vegetation, sometimes big mountains, and sometimes semi-desert like landscape. I saw lots of cacti.

I arrived in La Serena around 6:30pm and got a taxi to my hostel (just as well really as it was a reasonable distance and I didn't know where I was going). The hostel is ok, but not great. I don't think I'll be staying here when I come back to La Serena next week. It does have some good points, like a fab roof terrace, which has allowed me to take some nice photos of the city.

I've done a bit of exploration of the city whilst I've been here and a bit of research into the area, in terms of the variety of tourist observatories nearby - there are loads!

I visited the Archaeological museum where I saw an Atacameno mummy and a real Moai statue. I also had a wander around the Japanese Garden (which I had thought was a bit of a random addition to the city, but which I found out yesterday is a symbol of the good export relationship Chile has with Japan).

I booked myself onto a trip to the Observatorio Mamalluca for Thursday evening, but sadly the trip got cancelled. They told me it was because there were clouds in Valle de Elqui where the observatory is, but I spoke to people yesterday who had been at the observatory on Thursday and said it was really clear. I think it was probably a case of not enough people booked on the trip I booked on, or maybe the observatory was fully booked. Anyway, hopefully, I'm going this evening. I've been doing a bit of stargazing from the rooftop of the hostel, I even was able to see the Milky Way (faintly but still), but I really need some guidance on what I'm looking at!!! Hopefully by the end of my time in Chile, I'll be an expert on the constellations of the Southern skies.

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Such an 80's child

After my meetings at the ESO offices, I had lunch with William from ALMA at the Museo de la Moda,which I had been planning to visit anyway.
Exhibit at the entrance to Museo de la Moda

I was in heaven! The 2 exhibitions they have on at the moment were just perfect for me.

The first exhibition was a Michael Jackson exhibition which features lots of his interesting outfits from over the years.

This was so cool! He had such a lot of amazing outfits. There was also a wall displaying various album artworks and posters from concerts. And, to my delight, plenty of his tunes playing in the background.

The second exhibition which was on was one called 'Back to the 80s', which was quite simply awesome!!! not least because of the fantastically cheesy 80's music they had playing throughout the different rooms.

Being the Museo de la Moda, there were a lot of clothes from the 80's on display (although I was a little disappointed that the puffball skirt didn't make it in to the collection - that was a favourite item of mine in the mid-80's. I loved my purple with black spots puffball!!). There were also various displays of magazines arranged alongside screens showing compilations of clips from various music videos. 

One of my favourite bits in the exhibition had to be the display of Barbies and Swatch watches - both things I was very proud to own. In fact, 2 of the Barbies on display I actually had!!
I particularly loved the little walkman that came with this one!

You can't see this one so well because of the reflection but the earrings this one had were amazing!
And of course, I couldn't possibly do an entry about this exhibition without including mentioning the fact that they had the DeLorean from Back to the Future!!!! They also had the 'futuristic' jacket which Marty wears but I didn't get a photo of that.

Now, where is my hoverboard???? Its almost 2015...surely they must be nearly ready!!

I loved this exhibition and actually had forgotten just how mad some of the fashion from the 80's was. It did leave me wondering though...when exactly did we all stop thinking that huge shoulder pads and fluorescent everything were good to wear? It feels like the madness just all stopped suddenly, but I'm sure it must have been a gradual thing. And of course, some of it has come back around again in the fashion cycle, like batwing tops for example. One thing I had forgotten (or perhaps hadn't really realised as I was too young) was the androgyny of the 80's.

I could have quite honestly stayed in the exhibition for hours, purely to listen to the music!

Visiting the ESO offices

Yesterday morning I had meetings with outreach people from ESO and ALMA.

The ESO offices in Santiago are in the rather plush area of Vitacura (lots of designer shops and fancy housing). I got the metro at what I found was clearly still rush-hour. 'Busy' doesn't even come close to describing how the trains were! But, there are assistance on hand at the busiest stations to keep things in order - nice touch to an already excellent metro system, I have to say.

Anyway, the walk from the metro station to the ESO office took around half an hour and involved a couple of hairy road crossings, but I made it in one piece, and was delighted to see they have some nice astronomy images around the fencing of the site.

ESO Offices, Santiago
My first meeting was with Laura Ventura and Valentina Rodriguez of the ePOD Chile team. Laura is the Education Officer, and Valentina the Press and Outreach Officer and head of the team. We chatted together about the different activities ESO does in terms of outreach, and that currently, their focus is mostly on wider public outreach and social media. However, they do provide funds to support other astronomy education projects in schools and universities around Chile. For example, next week there is an event in La Serena for various different colleges with an astronomy focus, which ESO are supporting. They also told me of a school in Calama which they have links with, which has a very strong astronomy focus - I may look into visiting the school when I am in that area.

I told Laura and Valentina about some of the projects I've been involved in through my work at the Royal Observatory Edinburgh, including our recent links with the ESERO network, the James Webb teacher CPD we run and our Deep Space schools resources (which I also showed them on the internet). I also explained the set-up of the observatory in Edinburgh and the work of the Visitor Centre in general.

Laura showed me some information from an astronomy summer school ESO used to run in conjunction with the European Association for Astronomy Education, for teachers from across Europe. We discussed the challenges of ESO having so many member states, and hence different languages and school systems - making it difficult to run training appropriate for all. The astronomy summer school was run in English, but Laura said that some of the teachers had found that challenging as not all the teachers had the same level of English.

One exciting result of my meeting with the ePOD team was that I will hopefully be able to have an overnight stay at Paranal. Laura is accompanying a group up to do some filming (I think she said for a planetarium film)  from the 4th to 11th July. I was already planning to be in the north around those dates so it works perfectly. Super excited about that opportunity! I also got some nice ESO materials to take away with me including a nice mug with the Helix Nebula on it and some stickers (including one of the E-ELT saying 'Size really does matter' which I found very amusing!

Following my meeting with the ePOD team I went across the site to the ALMA building to meet with the ALMA outreach people. I first met Valeria Foncea who I had been in contact with before I left the UK. Valeria leads the outreach team for ALMA and is Chilean. She also introduced me to William Garnier, who is French and is the Education and Outreach Officer for ALMA.Valeria and I talked a bit about ALMA and she showed me a brand new (hot off the press!) brochure which has been created for the public. Valeria also told me of work the ALMA outreach team have been doing with an Atacameño school, using inquiry based learning with the pupils to support their English and Science lessons. There is more information about this project here

Valeria and I also discussed the plans for my visit to ALMA. Valeria has a Columbian journalist visiting and has invited me to join this visit. At the moment, the plan is to visit the Operations Support Facility on 5th July and the Array Operations Site (at 5000m!) on the 6th July. The logistics are still to be firmed up, and I have to send Valeria confirmation that I passed my high altitude medical in the UK so she can authorise the visit. Even though I have done this medical, everyone still has to do another short medical assessment the day before going to the AOS.

I got a few nice giveaways from ALMA too, including one of their brand new brochures, a paper model to make of one of the ALMA dishes (which is earmarked for someone back in Edinburgh!) and a fantastic book all about the flora and fauna of the Chajnantor plain, where ALMA is situated.

William and I then went for lunch at the nearby Museo de la Moda, and chatted lots about our jobs - career paths, diversity of tasks, enjoyment, difficulties.

All in all a fabulous morning and some very lovely people!

Monday, 18 June 2012

Today I fell a little in love

For the first few days here, I hadn't been 'feeling' Santiago. I certainly didn't dislike it, it just hadn't grabbed me quite like Buenos Aires or Rio had, for example.

Today, all that changed and I fell a little in love with Santiago.

I spent the whole day exploring and checking out the recommended sights and at times, felt quite emotional.

I started the day by heading up Cerro Santa Lucia which is a hill (altitude 629m, but only 69m above the surrounding area) literally 10 minutes walk from my hostel. The weather today was absolutely perfect so I got great views of the city and nearby snow-covered mountains.
View from Cerro Santa Lucia
At the top of Santa Lucia, there is a castle and a viewing tower. Lots of lovely greenery around, including the 'Darwin Garden' and I saw quite a lot of humming birds. It was great to get an idea of the spread of the city and the diversity of the buildings compared to the amazing mountains behind (and get a view of those mountains reflected in some of the high-rise buildings).

At the bottom of Santa Lucia there is the Plaza Neptuno which I thought apt to mention. It comprises a fountain (funnily enough!) with a statue of the God himself.

After my trip up Santa Lucia, I thought I'd head up another of the city's hills - Cerro San Cristobal (altitude 880m, and approx 300m above the rest of Sanitago).

I took the metro to Baquedano and wandered through the very trendy area of Bellavista to the bottom of San Cristobal, only to find that the funicular didn't start until 2pm. Of course, I could have walked up, but I like funicular trains!

So, to fill in some time, I wandered around the streets taking a few pictures of the awesome graffiti and the most famous of Pablo Neruda's houses, La Chascona (sadly as it was Monday, I couldn't go in - most museums and galleries are closed on Mondays). I also stopped off for a bite to eat - traditional Chilean fodder: empanadas. Yum!

Amazing graffiti in Bellavista

Pablo Neruda's house
Once at the top of San Cristobal, the view quite simply took my breath away. This was really the first time I appreciated the scale of this city and for some reason, it made me quite emotional. A mixture of being overcome by the beauty of the view and excitement at the trip which lies ahead of me.

Its a big city!
I had a good walk around the hill, including to the top where there is a large white Virgin Mary statue watching over the city.

After this, I headed to the bus terminal to buy my ticket to La Serena for Wednesday and then made my way slowly back to the hostel, stopping off at the Centro Cultural Palacio La Moneda which had a fab exhibition on about India - lots of wonderful Hindi god statues and paintings from the mid 1800's. There was also a Violeta Parra exhibition on, which was incredibly moving. This exhibition also had a very cool feature which I don't think I've seen in any other museum/gallery before. Certain pictures had a sensor on the floor in front of them, which would trigger a particular song, relating to that painting, to come on. It worked really nicely.

La Moneda
That about sums up my day really. But I feel I should finish on an astronomical note...

Just along the road from my hostel is this shop: