After 30 hours of bumping along on planes and buses, at long last I stood in the darkness and gazed upon an immense night sky. My long journey seemingly had brought me to the shoreline of interstellar space rather than the high-altitude plateau that is Chile’s Atacama Desert.
It was the first night of a monthlong journey to visit astronomy observatories in Chile, Los Angeles and Hawaii. Whether designed for professional use or for the general public, observatories nurture humanity’s explorations of the cosmos. They spark wonder and discovery, but even before I set foot inside the first one, I was seeing outer space in a spellbinding new way.
That first night in the Atacama, arguably the best place in the world to see the night sky, the Milky Way proved true to its name: a milky-like smear stretching from horizon to horizon. The Southern Cross shone bright as candlelight. Both the Large and Small Magellanic Cloud galaxies glowed like stickers on a child’s bedroom ceiling, and Jupiter’s bands were easily visible with an amateur telescope, as were four of its moons.
However, the real surprise was our moon. I watched eagerly, all drowsiness gone, as it peeked above the horizon just before 11 p.m. Moonrise was an actual event — a pale, ethereal version of sunrise. Its light spread like brush fire across the night sky, and the desert landscape appeared as if a switch had been flipped.
It was early May, autumn in the Southern Hemisphere, and our group had spent nearly five hours staring at the night sky. We had met in San Pedro de Atacama, a small town 7,900 feet above sea level near Chile’s border with Bolivia. Judging by the legions of backpacks, hostels and prominent Wi-Fi signs, it sits firmly astride the trekking circuit of Latin America. During the 24 hours I was there, I met people from the United States, Brazil, France, Canada, Italy, Britain, Australia and New Zealand. Activities abound: There are mountain bikes to rent, salt flats to visit and pink flamingos to photograph.
However, I was there to stargaze. The Atacama, a plateau about the size of Pennsylvania, is the driest desert in the world. The combination of its aridity, high altitude and low population results in exceptional seeing, an astronomy term for the quality of observing conditions. San Pedro de Atacama offered several night sky tours, but this area isn’t just for amateurs. Chile — primarily in the Atacama — contains 70 percent of the world’s professional astronomy observatories, if you count the massive new ones under construction like the Giant Magellan Telescope.
While in San Pedro de Atacama, I also wanted to visit the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array, known as ALMA. Built by an international consortium of countries, ALMA is “the most complex astronomical observatory ever built on earth,” according to its U.S. partner, the National Radio Astronomy Observatory.
Like the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research on the outskirts of Geneva, which I visited several months ago, the ambition and scale of this facility makes it a popular place to visit. Reservations are tough to get, although its isolation helps the last-minute traveler. Every Saturday and Sunday, a bus leaves San Pedro de Atacama and takes tourists to visit ALMA’s Operations Support Facility in the empty desert a half-hour away. Although free tickets are snapped up months in advance, those without reservations show up at the bus stop anyway and often are rewarded. On the Saturday that I visited, only one person was left behind even though at least a dozen had not reserved ahead of time.
ALMA’s facility sits nearly two miles above sea level. It has the feeling of a space colony, maybe because of its cleanliness and the unforgiving terrain. Or maybe it’s because of the extremes of the environment. Based on my own brief experience, temperatures in the area range from freezing at night to boiling during the day. As tourists climbed off the bus, each was given a squirt of sunscreen, the way you’d apply hand sanitizer in a different setting.
The actual array of ALMA’s 66 movable antennas sat far above us — out of sight — on a plateau at 16,000 feet (though you can see them through a webcam). No one lives up there, and those working in that environment must use supplemental oxygen. We toured the base camp, the control center and Otto, one of two German-built antenna movers. Imagine the campus of a widget-manufacturing company transferred to Mars, and you get the idea. The control room, operated 24 hours a day, had a cobbled-together look that seemed out of place with the facility’s $1.4 billion price tag. It was nothing more than a dozen or so tables and chairs, lots of computers and a lone humidifier that was the exact model of the humidifier in my children’s bedroom. I can’t imagine it was having much of an effect.
Like the particle colliders I visited, ALMA’s research is as complex as the motivation is simple. Basically, ALMA’s quest is to search for the reasons we are human beings instead of stardust floating in the void. For example, it found a simple form of sugar in the gas surrounding a young binary star, demonstrating that some of the chemical foundations of life on Earth also exist in faraway galaxies.
Of course, discoveries like that one only lead to more questions. To answer them, you have to keep building more advanced telescopes. After visiting ALMA, I flew across the Atacama to its southern edge to get a sense of astronomy’s audacious future goals. The Giant Magellan Telescope is one of two mega observatories currently under construction in Chile, along with the European-led Extremely Large Telescope. These two observatories belong to a new generation of observatories that will be able to analyze potential life-bearing planets light-years away. The GMT, as it is commonly called, promises to capture images 10 times sharper that the Hubble Space Telescope.
For the moment, though, it is nothing more than a construction project on a mountaintop, as well as several enormous mirrors in varying stages of production at the University of Arizona’s mirror lab. “First light,” as astronomers call the moment when an observatory begins operations, is scheduled for 2024.
The GMT is being built by a consortium of universities in the United States and other countries at a mountaintop site called Las Campanas. Owned by the Carnegie Institution, the site currently hosts eight other telescopes as well as staff housing that evokes a Swiss chalet. During the night I spent there, I met scientists working on the GMT’s instrumentation. One of them was Brian McLeod, astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. Dr. McLeod leads a team developing instrumentation to keep the GMT’s 14 primary and secondary mirrors correctly aligned. He started designing prototypes back in 2009, which means that at first light in 2024, he will have spent 15 years on this project. He ruefully noted that people change jobs more frequently than he changes projects.
Dr. McLeod traced his interest in astronomy back to high school in tiny Gambier, Ohio, when his chemistry teacher showed him the night sky through a telescope. I spoke with him in the control room of the Magellan Clay telescope at Las Campanas. He and his team were going to spend the entire night there testing their instruments. However, high wind speeds were spoiling their plans. When I saw them at breakfast the next day, they had spent the entire night in the control room and had only been able to use the telescope for a few hours at most.
When it begins operations, the GMT will welcome visitors, but how exactly is still unclear, given the site’s remoteness. Plus, nighttime observation requires dim ground conditions — a hazard to driving — while daytime is the period when all the observatory staff sleep. Still, if ALMA is any guide, visits to the GMT will be popular. So many people want to visit ALMA that the external relations staff stay on-site for weeks at a time, doing shift work.
This is despite the fact that unlike observatories for the general public, there is nothing to “see” at places like ALMA and the GMT. Today’s professional facilities are long removed from the time when you look through a viewfinder and use the telescope as an extension of your eyeball. Instead, professional observatories use computers to capture data and images and send them to researchers around the world.
Nevertheless, visiting these observatories — like my previous visits to particle colliders — boggled my mind. After all, those who work at observatories operate time machines that can detect light emanating from the birth of our universe, billions of years in the past. Even with the naked eye, the light I saw from the nearby Large Magellanic Cloud was 200,000 years old.
I said goodbye to Dr. McLeod and his team and boarded a plane back to Santiago. As I stared out the window, looking down at the vast brown carpet of the Atacama below me, I considered my situation with strange clarity: I was a collection of bound-together atoms surrounded by other atoms hammered into the shape of a metal airplane tube. And this tube was propelling me through the sky by burning the remains of long-dead plants and animals. Thoughts like this did not come naturally to me before visiting ALMA and Las Campanas.
Stargazing in the Northern Hemisphere
Weeks later, my wife and I traveled to Los Angeles and Hawaii to take in astronomy experiences aimed at the general public, the entry point for budding astronomers like the high school version of Dr. McLeod. In Los Angeles, I visited one of the most prominent observatories in the world — the Griffith Observatory, built in 1935. Frequently spotted in movies and TV shows, and especially known for its starring role in “La La Land,” the Griffith Observatory welcomes ever-increasing numbers of visitors to its iconic building overlooking the city’s skyline. Like many other science facilities, access to the Griffith Observatory is free. It was a reminder that outside of the cost of getting there, science tourism is generally light on the wallet. And if traveling far distances is an issue, many universities in the United States have observatories on campus that offer public viewing hours.
We visited the jam-packed Griffith Observatory in the late afternoon. It was more than an hour until its 12-inch Zeiss Refracting telescope would open for viewing the night sky, but already a line was forming of people wanting to get a closer look at the planets, the moon and the larger stars. On its website, the Griffith Observatory claims “More people have looked though it than any other telescope in the world.”
I wondered whether the crowds at the Griffith Observatory were due mainly to its Hollywood celebrity. However, other astronomy sites were just as crowded. We experienced this the following day, when we flew to the island of Hawaii to visit Mauna Kea, one of the world's top venues for astronomy. The Maunakea Visitor Information Station, located about two-thirds up the side of the dormant volcano, is base camp for the professional observatories on the summit. It is also a center for public astronomy in Hawaii.
Four evenings a week, a mix of employees and volunteers trundle out telescopes for everyone to see. People drive up hours before, because the parking lot almost always runs out of room well before the 7 p.m. viewing start time. Hundreds of us stood patiently in long lines, clutched cups of hot chocolate, waiting for glimpses of Jupiter and the North Star. Meanwhile, people hiked up a nearby hill to catch the last rays of the setting sun. It turned chilly. People donned sweaters and hotel bath towels to ward off the cold. In the winter, snow often covers the summit while vacationers enjoy the tropical climate at ocean level.
The 14,000-foot-high summit at Mauna Kea holds 13 telescopes owned by a variety of countries and universities. Those with four-wheel drive vehicles can drive to the top and look around. We did this later in our trip. It was the middle of the day but it felt like evening. We drove through clouds, rain slicked the windshield and the temperature dropped from 80 degrees to 40. Although I could sense the lack of oxygen at the visitors’ station, the real change came at the summit where there is 40 percent less oxygen than at sea level. Walking felt labored and the world took on an acute sharpness, as if rocks and boulders and the air itself had grown an edge. We hiked to the high-altitude Lake Waiau, its brilliant blue water an intense contrast with the fiery sun.
Nearby stood the observatories, all of them closed to visitors. Only the Keck Observatory has a small gallery on-site, but it had closed indefinitely several weeks before we arrived. A staffer back at the Information Station said the reason was vandalism. It would have been nice to enter one of the observatories, but after weeks of being immersed in astronomy, it was enough to stand on the mountaintop and gaze at the observatory domes jutting into the piercing blue sky.
At that moment, they seemed like a direct link to temples built on high places by our prehistoric ancestors, usually to be closer to the gods. We probably have always felt the urge to climb hills and mountains and stare at the sky. There is something about going to these high places — to ALMA, Las Campanas and the summit of Mauna Kea — that touches the core of our existence. “Starstuff pondering the stars,” in the words of Carl Sagan.
It was the beginning of June, a few days later. A warm, early summer evening. Sirens rose in the distance. The air felt lethargic, unwilling to form a breeze. Streetlights glowed orange as I stepped onto my porch and looked around. I saw the usual city haze that obscures nearly all of the night sky. But the pull of a month of stargazing lingered on, and I looked up. Eventually I perceived the faint but unmistakable trace of the Big Dipper. I don’t remember ever seeing it in the skies above Chicago, but of course it’s been there all along.
I kept looking, waiting for my eyes to become used to the dark. I thought about workers in astronomy observatories, getting ready for a night of exploration. More stars appeared. There was Jupiter like a beauty mark next to the moon. There was the North Star, twinkling just like in the lullaby. Standing in the middle of a city on our tiny planet, aware of my own fragile existence, I breathed a silent hello to the cosmos.
More places to look at the stars
Here are some additional observatories in the United States that are open to the public:
The Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Ariz., benefits from the same high desert conditions as the Atacama in Chile. It was here, in 1930, that Kansas-farmer-turned-observatory employee Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto. Daytime and nighttime tours take place every day of the week, as well as viewing of the night sky through the 24-inch Clark Refractor Telescope, weather permitting. Farther south, near Tucson, the Kitt Peak National Observatory offers daytime and nighttime activities, including night sky viewing from telescopes located in their visitor center.
In the mountains east of Silicon Valley stands the Lick Observatory, the world’s first permanently occupied summit observatory. In operation since 1888, the Lick Observatory is owned and operated by the University of California system. Admission is free to the complex, as well as to the visitor center and gift shop. One highlight is the Summer Series, which are evening events that include night sky viewing through the 36-inch Great Refractor and the 40-inch Nickel Reflector telescopes. Tickets are needed.
Located 450 miles west of Austin, Tex., the McDonald Observatory hosts wide-ranging scientific research as well as a robust series of public programs and tours. However, what sets the observatory apart from others is the ability to see the sky through some of the largest telescopes available for the public to view. During its special viewing nights, visitors with tickets can look through the 82-inch Otto Struve telescope, which was the second largest in the world when it opened in 1939. Best of all is the limited chance (9 to 12 times a year, around the full moon) to see the night sky through the 107-inch Harlan J. Smith telescope.
Another observatory that sometimes allows viewing through large telescopes is the Mount Wilson Observatory near Los Angeles. Here, Edwin Hubble discovered that the Milky Way galaxy is only part of a much larger — and expanding — universe. In addition to public tours, there are limited opportunities to view the night sky through the observatory’s famed 60-inch and 100-inch telescopes.
Established in 1859, the Allegheny Observatory in Pittsburgh offers free tours twice a week from April to October. The tours end with a viewing through the 13-inch Fitz-Clark, which was the third largest telescope in the world when it was built in 1861. It also boasts an adventurous history as telescopes go — its lens was stolen and held for ransom in 1872. Samuel P. Langley, then the director of the observatory, feared that if the ransom was paid, “it would pave the way for other lens-knappings,” according to the observatory’s website. After meeting secretly with the thief, Professor Langley successfully negotiated for the return of the lens.
This is the second of a two-part series on science tourism.
Peter Kujawinski is a Chicago-based writer. He wrote the first article in this series, “Colliders, Sundials and Wonder: When Science Is Your Destination.” His latest book is the middle grade novel Edgeland.”
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