Friday 13 July 2012

Stargazing in the Atacama Desert

After our trip to ALMA, Liliana, Olivier and I managed to get the last 3 places on one of the many stargazing trips on offer from San Pedro. We went with Space, whom I had read were the best ones to go with, and whom I had contacted before I left the UK. We did speak to another agency offering a tour, but I was severely put off by the fact the guy was trying to tell us that the fact that the Moon would be up (this tour was happening later in the night than the one we went on) wouldn't be a problem at all. Nonsense. The Moon was in a waning gibbous phase and would have made it more difficult to see the Milky Way, despite the low artificial light pollution levels. It definitely wouldn't have had no effect whatsoever.

Space is run by Alain Maury, an astronomer, who actually used to work at the Royal Observatory Edinburgh. He and his partner, Alejandra, run tours in French, Spanish and English, every night - as long as its not cloudy. And thankfully, we had a lovely clear night.

We got picked up by the bus in the centre of San Pedro and were driven about half an hour out of the town where we found 10 telescopes outside.

There were a few French people in the group, so Olivier went with them, and Alain, for his tour. Liliana and I stayed in the English speaking group which was led by Ale.

Ale did an excellent job of leading us through the night sky, doing the usual sort of guidance, with a laser pointer. Being in this group, and also my experience at Mamalluca earlier in my trip, really did remind me that you shouldn't assume anything with a general public group. By that, I mean that its really important to start with the basics and work up, without being patronising, of course, because you can't assume that everyone knows and understands the difference between the Solar System and the Galaxy, or between a star and a planet.

Some things which Ale did which really impressed me, and which I'd be keen to use at future public events at the observatory:

  1. Making people feel at ease with the notion of using light years as a measure of distance. Ale did this by saying that using time to measure distances really wasn't that uncommon. She asked someone how far San Pedro was from there, and quite naturally, got the response 'about half an hour away'. Such a simple thing but so effective.
  2. Explaining why we see different constellations in the Northern Hemisphere. Many of the group were European, and as such, not so familiar (just like me!) with the Southern Hemisphere night sky. Ale did a great job of explaining that your latitude on Earth, and the fact that the Earth is tilted, dictates what constellations you will see. She used the laser pointer to make some examples, showing where Polaris would be in London for example. I really liked this. We get a reasonable number of tourists visiting the observatory in Edinburgh - maybe not so many from the Southern Hemisphere...but I still think its worth explaining.
We spent around an hour with Ale showing us the various constellations. We even saw the zodiacal light, something I had never seen (knowingly) before.

Liliana with one of the telescopes
After this introduction, Ale took us round the various telescopes. I think this is possibly the one bit which could have been better. As we were such a large group - possibly about 25 of us - Ale took us round each telescope in turn telling us a little about the object the telescope was pointed at. This meant that at each telescope only around 5 people had a look as she was explaining, and then she moved on to the next telescope. Of course, we had time afterwards to go back to the different telescopes, but I just felt, that perhaps people didn't get as much out of it as they could. For example, there were around 20 of us at Mamalluca, and although there weren't as many telescopes, I felt the explainer there did a better job of showing us a few different objects and talked about each one in much more detail.

That said, I still think it was an excellent event, and I did get to see the Sombrero Galaxy for the first time, Alpha Centauri (a binary star system) and I had a better look at the Jewel Box cluster.

Unfortunately, I forgot my mini-tripod so wasn't able to get any fantastic shots of the Milky Way, but I did have a go, just laying my camera on the ground or sitting it on a table. I got a couple of mediocre shots. This one is my favourite although I'm not sure how well you'll be able to see it on your computer. It has Antares and Scorpio in it (well, most of the Scorpio constellation) and at the bottom of the picture is the Milky Way.

After we had all had some extra time to look through the telescopes, we headed inside (except it wasn't really inside - there was no roof, which was very cool!) for a hot drink (nice touch) and a chance to ask Alain any questions we might have. He's a really entertaining guy and gave very clear and interesting answers to the questions he was given.

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