La Serena, Chile — THE astronomer was annoyed.
Luigi "Rolly" Bedin, a young researcher from Padua, Italy, had traveled to northern Chile to study dense groupings of stars called globular clusters. Instead, he'd spent several nights hopelessly waiting for the clouds to clear. Considering northern Chile's reputation for perpetually perfect astronomical conditions, this was sort of like visiting the Bahamas in the middle of a blizzard.
I could commiserate. When I met Bedin outside a travel agency in June, the same weather had thwarted my amateur stargazing for several frustrating days. Now both of us were going to tour salt flats and sand dunes. We agreed that these were beautiful places -- but we'd come to see the stars.
I still had hope, though. My return trip to the Chilean capital of Santiago would take me past Cerro Mamalluca, an amateur observatory built for tourists like me who have come to the area because of its reputation as the emerging astronomy capital of the world. That meant I would have another shot at one of the perfect nights scientists refer to as photometric.
Astronomers have considered northern Chile an ideal laboratory for decades. Its sparse population means there is little light pollution, and the combination of stable air and Andean altitudes produces skies that are largely free of atmospheric distortions. Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory, the granddaddy of the region's world-class observatories, averages more than 300 clear nights a year.
It is not just northern Chile's atmosphere that makes it the best place to view the heavens this side of the Hubble Space Telescope. Its Southern Hemisphere location also provides excellent views of objects that are difficult or impossible to study from the United States. Among the most interesting of these are the Magellanic Clouds, two small galaxies that orbit our own, as well as the Galactic bulge of the Milky Way, a region that is home to vast clouds of gas, dense groupings of stars and probably a super-massive black hole.
If you have an inner Carl Sagan, northern Chile is the place to be.
The area began sprouting world-class international observatories in the 1960s, when construction began on Cerro Tololo, a U.S.-run observatory in the mountains east of La Serena, a major beach resort.
The Europeans arrived about the same time, forming a group called the European Southern Observatory and building farther to the north, first at a site now known as La Silla. More recently, the organization built Paranal Observatory, a cutting-edge facility on a hilltop hundreds of miles to the north.
Also, the Carnegie Foundation of Washington operates Las Campanas Observatory in the area.
In the last several years, all of these groups have built larger, more powerful telescopes. The biggest of the new telescopes, Paranal Observatory's creatively named Very Large Telescope, links four mirrors, each about 27 feet in diameter, to create the largest instrument of its kind in the world.
For me, the interesting thing about these telescopes is that most of them collect visible light (as well as invisible infrared rays), harnessing the energy we detect with the naked eye. Whereas much modern astronomy uses receiving dishes and antennas to capture radio waves, microwaves and other things you cannot see, these Chilean instruments are the great-great-grandchildren of Galileo, who didn't invent the telescope but revealed its power to explore the heavens.
With a little planning, tourists can visit most of these facilities. Many offer free guided tours at least a couple of weekends a month, although visitors must provide their own transportation to the observatories, all of which are intentionally in dark swatches of nowhere.
The stars their destination
FOR my girlfriend, Laura, and me, the solution to this problem was to rent a Toyota and zip toward Cerro Tololo, a facility I'd chosen to visit because of its relative fame and its proximity to La Serena, where we'd rented an inexpensive room. Ominously, though, a low gray fog hung over everything as we drove.
"Clear skies, huh?" Laura said doubtfully.
But after passing through a tunnel, we suddenly emerged into what seemed like a different world: The fog had lifted, the sky was bright blue and the green fields around us had turned into scrub brush and cactus. On a distant hilltop, a group of domes glinted in the sunlight. This was Cerro Tololo. We drove up a packed dirt road, winding our way toward what looked like a science-fiction moon base. Huge domed buildings jutted from a 7,200-foot hilltop. To one side, we could see snow-dusted mountains. To the other, a sea of gray clouds broke on the foothills below. The view alone was worth the trip.
Minutes later, Kadur Flores, a 47-year-old amateur astronomer, led us to what we'd really come to see: a telescope swathed in steel beams and black tubes, all pointed at a rectangular opening in the white dome above us.