With the clear skies of the Atacama desert on our doorstep, we weren't go to miss out on a spot of star-gazing fun. First stop was the SPACEObs tour just outside San Pedro de Atacama, but we ventured further afield to get up close to the “very large” telescopes of Paranal.

SPACEObs

SPACE – San Pedro de Atacama Celestial Explorations – how about that for a clever acronym? (www.spaceobs.com)

Atacama Desert

“I moved from skies with over 300 cloudy nights to skies with over 300 clear nights each year,” quipped our Canadian astronomer guide on our tour of the night sky outside San Pedro. Apparently the clear, cloudless skies and relatively wind-free area create perfect star-gazing conditions. What better place for an astronomer.

Astronomers must have different eyes to the rest of us, for with incredible precision, our guide waved around his laser-pointer to pick out stars, constellations, planets, and galaxies, that none of us could see beforehand. Some required more imagination than others, but by the end of it all, we were a little wiser about celestial goings-on and were pleased to have seen this little lot:

  • Betelgeuse (pronounced Beetlejuice, reddish in colour and part of the Orion constellation)
  • The entire constellation of Orion – We'd never seen his shield before or realized that he's defending himself from a bull
  • Subaru – a cluster of 7 stars that influenced the Japanese car name and brand logo
  • Magellanic clouds – a couple of dwarf galaxies
  • Andromeda galaxy
  • Sirius – the brightest star in the night sky
  • Southern cross

We got to peek through some telescopes before the evening was rounded off with a warming mug of hot chocolate in the astronomer's open-roofed hut.

It was a great night out, all with a good dose of humour thrown in, but we were in star-gazing territory and eager for more – R had his eyes set on one observatory in particular, and I didn't need much convincing.

Paranal

R knows how to speak my language. “It's where James Bond's Quantum of Solace was filmed,” he explained about the Paranal observatory. If Mr Craig had been there, then Paranal got my thumbs-up :-)

Paranal is one of three sites (alongside La Silla and Chajnantor, also in the Atacama desert) run by the European Space Observatory (ESO), and it is literally in the middle of nowhere. I guess you wouldn't expect anything less for one of the most advanced telescopes on Earth, being used at the forefront of astronomical research and discoveries.

One very expensive hire-car journey and 200km later, we arrived to this – the observatory above the purposely leveled-off Mount Paranal and the ESO complex:

It really felt like setting foot on a film-set. (In fact, it reminded me of visiting R at CERN in Geneva, where he smuggled me onto the premises to take a peek at some particle paraphernalia – note that I am not a scientist!) With our small tour group, we drove in convoy up to the four enormous telescopes located at 2,600m on Mount Paranal – an astronomer's playground for collecting data in the hope of a scientific breakthrough. I say four “enormous” telescopes, but to be perfectly correct, we should talk of “very large” telescopes. Yes, believe it or not, the highly creative name that these intelligent scientists bestowed upon their collection of four telescopes was the “Very Large Telescope” or VLT. I seriously need to talk to their marketing department. I can just picture the scene:

“What shall we call our very large telescope, Graham?”

“Erm, well, it is a very large telescope, Derek. So how about we call it the VLT?”

Anyway, I digress...

So, the VLT is not one but an array of four telescopes, all looking out into the vast, endless space beyond Earth, at the Solar System, galaxies, and Universe as a whole. Mind-boggling, eh?

And here's where the natural abilities in the Hagemann relationship compliment each other. While R laps up the numbers (“can you believe they all have a main mirror 8.2m in diameter?”), my take-away was the telescope names (Antu, Kueyen, Melipal, and Yepun – meaning Sun, Moon, Southern Cross, and Venus in the indigenous Mapuche language).

Here's one of those 8.2m diameter mirrors that enables scientists to probe the night sky and obtain astronomical images of objects 4 billion times fainter than can be seen with the naked eye.

What's Next? The ELT, of course

Since the tours take place during the day (too bad there aren't any night-time tours), and astronomers come out to play at night, the labs were pretty empty. But our guide took the chance to inform us about where this world-class scientific facility was heading. Work has already begun on a new ground-based telescope, which, at a length of almost half a football pitch, is destined to be “the world's biggest eye on the sky.” The primary German-made mirror is planned to be a whopping 39m in diameter and comprised of 800 hexagonal segments. The site was visible from Paranal – just 20km away on another purposely leveled-off mountaintop. With its completion in around 10 years, astronomers should be in an even better position to probe the many mysteries of our Universe.

It's all impressive stuff. But then we get to the name again. After the VLT, the new state-of-the-art telescope will be called the ELT. Yep, you've guessed it. The “Extremely Large Telescope”. Can't knock those scientists for keeping their naming consistent, I suppose.

Struck by another star

On our convoy back to the main gate, I was briefly star-struck by the thought of Daniel Craig in action as we caught a glimpse (and it really was a mere glimpse - can you make it out above?) of the Residencia – the award-winning building that was “blown up” in one of Bond's latest galavants, but in reality serves as a hotel solely for ESO scientists. It was then that I looked down at Open Street Maps (proving to be way better than Google Maps in South America), saw that we were driving alongside the “Star Track”, and thought maybe scientists do have a sense of humour ;-)