Chile is known for stargazing, particularly in the Northern Atacama desert where the cloudless skies are free of light pollution. But we’re cityside in the capital, so I needed to find a stargazing opportunity that wasn’t a 5- hour bus ride away.
The closest one was still on the edge of town, just off a windy mountainside road that made me thankful for all the canyon driving experience working in Malibu gave us. We booked it ourselves (for 45000 CLP/pp, ~$67 USD), and rented a car to get us there since it’s not really close to any public transportation. It’s possible to take the metro/buses and then a taxi, but unless you prearrange your transportation back, you might end up stranded in the Observatorio Astronómico Andino (OAA) lodge, next to some telescopes and using the woolen ponchos for warmth. Their space is quite comfortable, so it wouldn’t be the worst night, if they let you stay that is.
We got there with time to spare before sunset and enjoyed a glass of wine. The tour started out with a forgettable video about the history of this particular observatory. Then it was outside to take a look at the sky—the reason we’d come all the way out to the edge of Santiago.
From the Southern hemisphere, the constellations are reversed and upside down, and we’re able to see a different part of the sky than we’re used to.
This means a view of the Southern Cross (or Crux), perhaps the most recognizable constellation unique to the Southern hemisphere. It’s a body of 4 stars, one on each point of a lowercase ‘t’. As we saw it, the ‘t’ was laying down on its left side.
Our astronomer guide told us a trick to finding the South pole, just find the Southern Cross, and use the length of the longer part of the cross to move 3.5 times to the right, in the direction it’s pointing, and you’ve approximated where the south pole would be.
He’d set up a few telescopes and we were able to see constellations and other galaxies. One of them had three stacked points in the colors of a stoplight!
Sadly, I didn’t do well in remembering the names of all the points of interest, except Jupiter, my favorite planet (oh the days of watching Sailor Moon made such an impact!). We saw Jupiter (and 3 of its moons) last, as it needed a bit of time to come to view from behind the mountains.
Our cameras couldn’t capturing the view of the night sky, but we did see a second, stronger set of telescopes that were hooked up to computers with monitors. In order to capture a picture, you must set up a camera for loooong exposures and the camera must be programmed to move, as the sky does.
After the viewing sessions with the observatory’s most powerful telescopes, we went back in for some tapas (empanaditas, cheese&cracker board) and another glass of wine. We schmoozed with the other tourists and ended our visit with a video on what’s up and coming in the space frontier with the Curiosity Rover and the Mission to Mars. It made me want to follow the Curiosity Rover on Twitter, despite my lack of Twitter use in daily life.
It turns out 6 people in the group didn’t end up having a ride back to the city. We took one of the couples back with us and I heard that another tour group guide was generous enough to take a second couple with them too. I’m not sure what happened to the third, but if you ever make it out to the OAA, try to arrange transportation beforehand!