I saw sunrise over Santiago from the taxi that was taking me to the airport. The city is huddled up against the mountains, which, the day before, had been disappearing into the mist. In the wee hours, they were picked out against the brightening sky, and the landscape was superb.
I meet up with Mathieu, who will be my guide at Cerro Paranal, and we board a flight to Antofagasta, about 1200 kilometres north of Santiago. The plane flies along the Andes and, underneath us, farmland soon gives way to a mountainous landscape, the Atacama Desert, known for being the driest place on our planet. By a stroke of luck we even get to glimpse our final destination, ESO’s Very Large Telescope, on the peak of Cerro Paranal.
We pick up a car at the airport, and we’re off on a road trip that will take us through the coastal city of Antofagasta, before turning off and heading inland along the Pan-American Highway. To my eyes, Antofagasta has a certain old-fashioned charm, even if poverty, sadly, seems present everywhere.
On our right, the coastline is sometimes very rugged, and the waves are very impressive.
The final bastion of civilisation, as Mathieu calls it, an immense cement factory which seems to cover buildings and vehicles with dust for kilometres on either side.
The further we head into the desert, the fewer vehicles we pass.
Little by little, every trace of civilisation disappears, from the chapels built on the roadside to the tyre marks on the verges. We stop to take a few photos and the landscape looks like it came straight from a picture taken by a Mars rover. The rocks literally look like they dropped from the sky.
Soon, a sign points out the road that heads up to Cerro Paranal.
Here, the serious things begin: ESO’s Residencia is located at roughly 2400 metres altitude. Our arrival is filmed (and no, I won’t tell you how many takes we had to record), and our arrival in the Residencia is too (likewise!).
It’s hard not to have a grin from ear to ear. I first saw it long ago in a documentary (and watched Quantum of Solace, the James Bond movie filmed on location here) but the residence is surprising.
The interior design is airy, silence reigns, and the green and ochre colour scheme is particularly pleasant in a landscape which might not be lacking in ochre, but painfully lacks green!
I find my room – functional, with a big desk on which I could easily imagine myself working for hours, while looking at the surrounding landscape through the corner of my eye. At nightfall, closing the shutters is compulsory – it would be out of the question to let the light of the residence interfere with the observations being made a few hundred metres further up.
We have lunch at the canteen. For the last two days, I haven’t stopped hearing people sing the praises of the catering at Paranal, and now I know why. The concept of hospitality definitely didn’t stop with the architecture for ESO – the meals are delicious and I’m pretty sure the unlimited Italian-style ice creams, available day and night, are very popular. The atmosphere is homely, laid back, people smile, and outside, there’s a fantastic view of the rocky hillsides.
We do a tour of the outside of the building after lunch, and it’s once more a chance to pose for a few photos.
The integration of the residence into the natural environment is perfect, and I’m genuinely in admiration of it. Outside, the silence is equally impressive – no traffic noises, no music, no shouting, and absolutely no sound of machinery.
Sitting in the armchairs of the great hall, Mathieu explains the outlines of ESO’s mission and describes the facilities at La Silla, the VLT, ALMA – and the ongoing project to build the E-ELT (European Extremely Large Telescope), planned for Armazones, about 20 kilometres from Cerro Paranal, where the control room will be located. For more information, check out my notes here.
Late in the afternoon, we head to the VLT platform, located about 250 metres higher up. We take the car, and Mathieu explains that by night, all the vehicles have to drive with only side lights on. The sides of the roads are marked for this, but driving down the hill in darkness still sounds like an adventure!
Mathieu takes me to visit UT2, aka Kueyen – “Moon” in the Mapuche language. It’s at this time that the buildings that house the telescopes are opened up to allow the night’s observing to begin.
They start by tilting the mirror to avoid any debris that might have settled on the dobe to fall on it when the doors are opened. Amazing view, therefore, of the 8.2 metre primary mirror. Impressive!
More impressive still, everything happens in almost perfect silence. The mechanism which lets the telescope tilt and rotate is so precise that everything is done without any nose. Without looking at the telescope, it’s hard to know if it’s moving or not, so nobody’s allowed in the building at night while the telescope is observing – it would be simply too risky. When the dome opens, the orange light reminds us that we must not miss sunset over the ocean, which we can just about see through a sea of clouds below.
We head, therefore, for the western edge of the platform, for a superb sunset. We’re not alone (and no, I’m not just thinking of the photographer, who is still with us!), the control room is nearby and it’s well worth a few minutes’ break to watch the show.
I take advantage of the twilight to walk about the platform and admire the telescopes from different angles. The “small” auxiliary telescopes, with 1.8 metre mirrors, are also opening up before us.
It’s time to head down for dinner… before heading back up again to visit the VLT control room. Heading out from the residence, my attention is grabbed by what seems to be a thin cloud above us – which seems improbable given Paranal’s reputation. My companions mock me gently: what I thought were clouds… are the Milky Way and the Magellanic Clouds, which are only visible in the southern sky. Obviously I’d heard of them before, it’s even one of the reasons why ESO chose to build its telescopes in the Southern Hemisphere, but I can confirm that it really is easy to confuse them with clouds.
The control room is huge, with one section per telescope. We have a long talk with Henri Boffin, who does research into planetary nebulae around binary (or suspected binary) stars. He’s working on UT1, aka Antu (the Sun), which is the telescope we’ll use the next night to observe Thor’s Helmet. He’s a fascinating guy, and I urge you to read the articles about him on the web, or even to watch the video about him on the ESO website.
It’s already past midnight when we head out again, and in the meantime, the Moon has risen, taking away our sublime view of the Milky Way. Be that as it may, the Moon will light up our path as we walk back down to the residence along the footpath that’s appropriately called the star track. Three kilometres, by night, on a path just wide enough for one person… and along which we will stop plenty of times to take pictures.
I take advantage of Mathieu for a moment – he does some light painting for the first time!
It’s almost half past two in the morning by the time we’re back at the residence – luckily, tomorrow, there’s no timetable for the morning. Enchanted by everything I’ve seen, and impatient to share it, I tweet and write until 4.30am… before waking up at 7.30. Never mind – I can sleep another day.
- Translation from french to english by ESO; thank you!