Paranal & Pan de Azúcar: The frontier

A brief insight into the chaotic and hopelessly uninformed way in which these tails are brought to you. In truth the only reason I had come to Chile was to establish why I had placed two little stars on the map of the country an indeterminable time ago, the first was Chuquicamata which I had now successfully remembered the reason for its inclusion. The second was mysteriously located bang in the middle of the atacama far from any villages or main roads. Indeed most likely far from any observable signs of life. But far from being a desolate, lifeless little corner of the desert, Paranal is home to some of the most sophisticated engineering and scientific instruments ever conceived by our curious little species. More of that later but as described, getting to this cosmic observatory was not going to be possible without transport. So with a couple of days to spare and some of Chile’s most beautiful coastline in the vicinity I splashed out and rented a car for the journey. Although two wheels will always be my preference, for long, never ending straight lines through the desert, it’s hard to argue against the utility of four wheels. And what a set of wheels I had treated myself to.

That’s right, I’d reached straight for the top drawer of Antofagasta’s rental offerings and got myself a Hyundai Eon. Not only was this chariot in white an undeniably stylish ride to cruise around town, on a practical level it ticked all the boxes much like my Honda previously. 0 to 60 in a sprightly two and a half weeks. Perfect for powering past those five ton monster trucks on the pan American highway, provided we were on a steep decline, there was a solid two miles of clear road ahead and the truck slowed down somewhat in pity to let me pass. The turning circle of an ocean going frigate. And most importantly, a powerful and reliable steering wheel wobble at speeds eclipsing 80kmh to ensure concentration and panic at high speeds.

So after an intense and panic filled drive south I reached the stunning shores of Parque Nacional Pan de Azúcar, or Sugar Loaf National Park. Lined with the best beeches I had seen so far this trip and towering sand dunes sitting bolt upright, in defiance of moisture brought forth from the ocean. The world’s driest desert in a standoff with the world’s largest ocean, it’s quite a sight. I camped and made use of the car on other nights hoping that the complete eradication of light pollution would make for a brilliant night sky. But in my case it wasn’t just pollution from humans to consider so while the sky was beautiful, the light cast from crescent moon was enough to mean it wasn’t quite up to the standards set in Argentina.

I was however, undoubtedly in the right place, because if it’s good enough for the combined might of the European, East Asian and North American ground based space observatories, then it’s good enough for me. The Paranal observatory is perched on a towering cerro overlooking the parched desert below. The expanses of the Pacific stretching away to the west and the volcanoes forming the frontier with Bolivia to the east clearly visible, it’s possible to make out the full width of the landmass of Chile from the base of the giant telescopes. They are at present the largest array of telescopes in the world at over eight metres across per telescope. That is untill the next phase of Paranal is completed on a neighbouring cerro, with construction already commenced on EELT, that when finished will produce a telescope with a mirror in excess of 48 metres. By far the biggest optical instrument ever built. Capable of looking deeper than ever before into the furthest reaches of our solar system, and edging closer to the singular event that formed the cosmos. Or not, who knows, maybe at some point we’ll end up looking into the “eyes” of a superior race that have been observing us for the past 13 billion years in a vast cosmic experiment.

Walking around the site was a privilege, inside one of the telescopes we were lucky enough to witness the technicians repositioning one of the staggeringly complex instruments ready for the nights observations. The control room was just like any office space filled with entertaining science related office banter and studious scientists working away at their instruments. Despite its normality, It definitely filled me with a craving to somehow be involved with the technicological wizardry that lay behind the more mundane and familiar readouts on the computer monitors. The final stop was at least for me equally exciting. The residence building designed by (Can’t for the life of me remember the architects) and recipient of multiple architectural awards is nestled thoughtfully into the rocks. Built with a pleasing mix of glass and insitu gradient concrete, I waited for the rest of the group to head home before pleading with the guide to let me sneak round and get a view of the front elevation. You may notice it from a certain James Bond film, in fact the informal name for the residence on the oberservatory is “the Bond rooms”

All in alI I think it’s fair to say, a once in a lifetime experience. I found it fascinating that for us to observe these most distant and fascinating stars and planets, we ourselves have to journey into the most alien and challenging environs of our own planet. So from the deepest depths to the stars above my time in Chile was drawing to a close. Now it’s on to Bolivia to meet an old friend. Untill then, Hasta luego.

Heny G – Candy

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