Those sparkling diamonds scattered across the night sky have intrigued humanity since the dawn of time, our curiosities solidifying in the form of scientific inquiry that is the field of modern astronomy. Chile’s varied and extremely unique landscape guarantees more than 300 clear nights a year, unobstructed views of the Southern Sky, and the absence of light pollution, so it’s not surprising that Chile is touted as the world’s astronomy capital. Chile Today sits down to learn more about Chile’s unique astronomical role.
Modern astronomy began in Chile when American Astronomer James Melville Gilliss arrived here in 1849 on a mission to observe Mars and Venus from the southern vantage point. Gilliss established the first ever Chilean observatory on Santa Lucia Hill in Santiago. After completing his project, Gilliss sold the equipment and the building to the Chilean government, which then created the National Astronomical Observatory (El Observatorio Astronómico Nacional de Chile or OAN).
The second half of the 20th century saw the installation of various observatories across the country. Many of these were put up by organizations from the U.S. and Europe. In 2011, Chile was home to 40% of the world’s astronomical infrastructure, most of which were telescopes.
Chile now has countless observatories and telescope of monumental importance to the field of astronomy. One of note is the ALMA (Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array) located in the north of Chile and considered one of the first truly global astronomical projects with scientists from all around the world. This observatory is also the first to combine up to 66 radio-telescopic antennas working together.
The future of astronomy in Chile is looking brighter than ever. In 2015, Chilean President Michelle Bachelet predicted that Chile will be home to 70% of global astronomical infrastructure by 2020. At the moment there are two ground-breaking projects planned for Chile: the Extremely Large Telescope (ELT) and the Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT).
The ELT will be the world’s largest optical/near-infrared extremely large telescope with a primary mirror of 30 m in diameter. It is now under construction by the European Southern Observatory (ESO) agency on top of Cerro Armazones in the Atacama Desert. This telescope may forever alter astronomy by detecting oxygen and methane, which might potentially allow it to seek out extraterrestrial lifeforms.
The GMT, which is set to be operational by 2025, promises to revolutionize the way we see our universe and answer the question: ‘Are we alone?” by studying exoplanets. GMT’s mirrors will collect more light than any telescope ever built with the highest resolution ever achieved to date.
With the telescope ALMA in the Atacama desert, a new solar system has been discovered, 500 lightyears away with four planets.
An Ideal Climate
Why is Chile, a county seemingly on the edge of the world itself, an epicenter of astronomical research? “It is mainly because of climatic reasons. Modern large telescopes are so expensive that only the sites with the best atmospheric conditions on the planet are chosen for observatories,” explains Paul Eigenthaler, an Austrian postdoc at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile.
The Atacama Desert, the driest in the world, located in the north of Chile, offers high elevations and clear, cloudless nights for over 300 days of the year, allowing for an unprecedented view of the stellar world above. “The atmospheric conditions are very smooth in a desert and there is no turbulence in the air which would affect the quality of astronomic observations,” Eigenthaler adds.
There are only a few such suitable places on the planet besides Chile, namely the Canary Islands, Hawaii, and Arizona. “The rest are some individual smaller telescopes in various countries but the main concentration of telescopes is in these few observatories. There are only a few big observatories in the world,” according to Eigenthaler, and this is what makes Chile so important to the astronomical community.
Chilean telescopes have been responsible for some of the greatest breakthroughs in astronomy. Most recently, scientists achieved the incredible feat of photographing a black hole. They did so by creating a network of telescopes known as the Event Horizon Telescope, or the EHT. One of these telescopes was the ALMA in Chile.
But it is not all about the once-in-lifetime events, as thousands of important discoveries are made on a regular basis on Chilean soil. “With the Very Large Telescope (VLT) on Cerro Paranal and its special instruments we have learned a lot about the movement of stars within galaxies, their composition and formation. Then there are many instruments, which have allowed us to measure the masses of exoplanets. With ALMA we are able to, for the first time ever, directly observe how stars are formed, i.e. how molecular gas forms a disk around a young star that is in the process of forming,” states Eigenthaler.
A Glimpse Into The Future
With the construction of new telescopes and observatories, Chile is set to become the most important place for astronomical discoveries. As humanity has just gazed into the dark depth of a black hole, the question on everyone’s mind is: “What else is out there?”
According to Eigenthaler, the big fields in astronomy at the moment are “the discovery of exoplanets, i.e. planets around distant stars and the universe at high redshift. This means the universe at its early stages of evolution. We have to remember that since the speed of light is not infinite when we look at distant objects we look into the past. So the further we look, the further into the past we look, when the universe was much younger. And astronomers try to understand how the first galaxies formed and how they evolved to the galaxies we see nowadays in our immediate neighborhood.”
There is no doubt that for amateur astronomers, weekend star gazers, as well as professional astronomers, Chile is a place like no other. Astro-tourism is at its peak in Chile with many observatories open to visitors and countless tours available for purchase at any time of year. For professional astronomers, Chile provides the best career opportunities due to its growing infrastructure. While for the rest of us, it could mean more fascinating discoveries about our own existence on this beautiful blue planet and its place in the vast unexplored universe.
Beautiful Chile: the Cancana Observatory in the Valle de Elqui, a magical place that gets you close to the stars 🌠
Born in Ukraine but raised in Canada since a young age, Kateryna Kurdyuk has since acquired a Masters of Media Studies and Communication from University of Melbourne in Australia and worked in the education field in Dubai, UAE. While currently working as an English Professor in Santiago, Chile, Kateryna is using her extensive experience living and travelling abroad to contribute as a writer to the emerging independent English-language media in Chile.