After some difficult farewells to my children at the train station, a Need for Speed-like bus journey through the streets of Paris and 14 hours on the plane… I’m in Chile. I’m responding to ESO’s invitation, after they designated me as the winner of the Tweet your way to the VLT competition!
By the way, I was quite impressed by the quality of Air France’s food – not just the Champagne dinner served around half past midnight French time, but the huge breakfast served while over the Andes. Stuck in the middle of my Boeing 777, the video camera underneath the aircraft still let me have a couple of glimpses of the outside world, and gave an incredible view of the tarmac during takeoff and landing.
Arriving in Santiago, leaving the airport reminded me of Hurghada thanks to the desert, the palm trees… even the mountains are there. The taxi took me through working class areas, into huge construction sites in the business district before finally dropping me off a few minutes later at ESO’s guest-house, at the end of a cul-de-sac. The term ‘hacienda’, no doubt inherited from Zorro, suggests itself: all on one floor, a U-shaped building that stretches around a garden with a fountain at the centre. In the residences around it, the plants on the balconies are luxuriant – all tropical plants which I recognise from seeing well protected and indoors at our latitudes. Outdoors, it takes me a few moments to realise that the trees along the roadsides are covered in buds: we’re in the Southern Hemisphere, and it’s the beginning of spring!
There’s table service for lunch, and today, there are just two of us. My companion is there representing a university, and he’ll be off to La Silla, another of ESO’s sites, tomorrow. He’ll be observing for six different organisations over seven nights. His specialism: planets, but not our own – rather, those in other systems!
I head for ESO’s offices after lunch, where I’m met by Mathieu, a member of the outreach team in Chile. He’s neither the only Frenchman, nor the only one to speak French, but I’m still sorry never to have learned any Spanish.
Amusingly, ESO’s offices are located on the Chilean equivalent of Fifth Avenue, or the Champs-Elysées if you prefer: all the big names of Parisian retail are there. Mathieu explains to me that the ESO offices were there long before the area became so exclusive.
On site, a new building was added two years ago to house the teams working on ALMA (Atacama Large Millimeter-submillimeter Array), and William Garnier – another Frenchman! – meets us there.
ALMA is a radio telescope, currently the most powerful in the world, even if another, even more ambitious project is currently being developed (http://www.skatelescope.org/). Forty-three antennae out of 66 are already operational. A joint project of ESO, the United States and Japan, ALMA stretches out over almost 16 kilometres on Chajnantor plateau, at 5000 metres altitude. Obviously the challenges at this altitude are numerous, even if the control centre is 2000 metres lower down, in order to reduce the risks to staff. Once the final antennae are installed in 2013, ALMA will be able to observe frequencies invisible to the human eye with great precision. Among its possible objectives: discovering how life might form in space, or studying the origins of the Universe. And the icing on the cake: ESO has invested a lot in research and development for its 25 antennae (another 25 are built by the USA and 16 by Japan), in particular, designing a magnetic movement mechanism and an antenna which is made largely of carbon fibre (which is very light) – innovations which may in time find everyday applications… a lot like lasers or CCD cameras, which were developed for astronomy but quickly found other uses.
Afterwards, I had an informal and fascinating chat with Massimo Tarenghi, ESO Representative in Chile, who has for 25 years supervised some of ESO’s biggest projects. In his office, a brand new Meade 200mm telescope, which will be used for outreach.
Indeed, as Valentina, head of outreach in Chile explains, ESO does all it can to promote astronomy (and science more broadly) in its host country. Organising events, visits to schools, a network of ESO astronomers who do outreach… there are many facets to this, and it works. It should be said that Chilean institutions (universities, etc) get 10% of the observing time every year at ESO sites – enough to motivate a whole generation.
It’s also ESO’s Chile offices that are in charge of organising hundreds of VIP and media visits every year – and make no mistake, the the European facilities in Chile are a big source of pride, both in Europe and in Chile.
The next step will be the construction of the E-ELT (European Extremely Large Telescope), whose mirror will have a diameter of 39 metres. If Mathieu is to be believed, it’s impossible to even guess the kinds of discoveries that will be made with it: “It will be a technological leap as important as Galileo’s first telescope or the Hubble Space Telescope.” You’ll have guessed it: a lot of pride as well among the ESO staff here, and a lot of passion in their voices.
Back in the guest house in the evening, there are ten of us around the table now. I meet Christopher – who I had had lunch with – again and I get to know some other ESO employees, who have come to visit from headquarters in Munich. A fascinating first day, and tomorrow I head off for the Atacama desert, where I’ll find the Very Large Telescope – the VLT.
- Many thanks to ESO for this translation!