Chile: Cerro Paranal

Updated 27 August 2001
Click on these stamp-sized images to see larger versions.

Here is a record of my April/May 2001 trip to ESO's (European Southern Observatory) Paranal Observatory, home of the VLT (Very Large Telescope), the world's largest telescope. To qualify that statement: each VLT unit, with a primary mirror 8.2 meters in diameter, is not as large as one of the 10-meter twin Keck telescopes on Mauna Kea, but when these 4 telescopes are brought together (see this link). their combined collecting area is greater than even that of the two Kecks combined. For more info on the world's biggest telescopes (current and planned) see the diagram at the bottom of this page, or this link (especially see the plans for the 100-meter OWL!) Another caveat: I'm talking about optical telescopes. The largest single telescope of any kind is the 305-meter radio dish at Arecibo, Puerto Rico as seen in the movies GoldenEye and Contact. For a description of the site, see BBC's report.

The observatory from the air. The 4 giant telescopes can be seen at the top of the 2600-meter (8500 ft) Cerro Paranal, with the base camp nearby.

The Atacama Desert surrounding the observatory. The driest desert on Earth, it looked (except for the blue skies) more like the surface of Mars. The funny colors in the 6th photo are a result of some strange effect when using my camera's polarizing filter to look through the van's windows.

1st-2nd: Temporary shelters at base camp.
3rd-5th: This futuristic-looking dome is the roof of the new base camp hotel under construction. It will include an atrium, a swimming pool, and rooms with cliffside views over the ocean. Sign me up!
6th-7th: This appears to be some sort of support structure used to transport the 8.2-meter primary mirrors -- so you can get an idea of the size of those mirrors. In the 5th-7th photos, the peak with the 4 telescope housings can be seen in the background.

1st-3rd: Base camp, set below the line of sight of the telescopes on the peak so as to minimize light pollution.
4th-6th: The desert around the mountain, with a few scrubby plants as the only sign of life.

This sunset may look pretty, but the causative cirrus clouds are bad news for astronomical observations.

The southern night sky, as seen from the peak. The Milky Way is more spectacular here than in the Northern Hemisphere. The Large Magellanic Cloud is visible as a smudgy patch in the bottom left of the 2nd photo.

Sunrise on the mountain. There is a cool effect with the light at this time of day, somewhat visible in the 3rd photo, where one can see the shadow of the Earth's surface in the air itself. Another effect (not shown) is that the shadow of the mountain peak is visible on the clouds far below at near sea-level.

The VLT!

1st-3rd: The primary mirror on Kueyen-UT2. It's difficult to get a sense of the scale, but look at the stairways in the 3rd photo.
4th: At the controls!

1st: This is a previous image of M87, the first giant elliptical galaxy we targeted.
2nd: Here is a snapshot of it we took at the VLT (UT2+FORS2).
3rd-4th: More snapshots of M87, with a different stretch, allowing one to see the giant jet in its center.
5th: A multslit mask spectroscopic image (what we were really after).

Official images from ESO:

1st: A view of the coast of Chile from the Space Shuttle. One can see why this region is so good for astronomy: the coal Antarctic current only the coast causes the Pacific Ocean's clouds to come to a screeching halt right at the coast, leaving fantastically dry and stable atmospheric conditions inland.
2nd: The VLT.
3rd: Diagram of the relative sizes of the primary mirrors of the world's largest optical telescopes.
4th-5th: Images of other giant elliptical galaxies, taken at the VLT. The second one is a peculiar example, showing the atypical prominent dust lane, which is probably the result of another galaxy which has been cannibalized. To see more images of galaxies, see: spiral galaxies and peculiar galaxies.

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