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!
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.