Southern Skies

Even though I’m at one of the prime sites for astronomy in the world, where observatories dot the landscape like mushrooms, I will not be using a telescope.  I am outfitted however by two cameras.  The Canon 60Da is my prime astronomical instrument accompanied by the Canon Rebel T2i.  The Rebel was loaned to me by my good friend Dave Fisherowski who firmly believes in redundancy and having good equipment.  The Rebel would be the day time camera and also a backup in case anything goes wrong with the 60Da.  It also makes a fine second imager for the night sky.

I never made it. I decided to take some camera equipment to Bicentennial Park around 10:30 one evening to capture starlight in the city.  I knew the images wouldn’t be great, but it would make for an interesting light pollution project when compared to other sites.  But I never made it to the park.  As I started walking I realized that right next door to the hotel was a business with a long driveway that wasn’t lit.  So I walked into the shadows and knew this was the spot.  As I got to work I wondered how I would explain all of this to any Polici who happen to come by.  I can just see the headlines…”American caught in shadows with binoculars and camera gear.”  And I don’t speak any Spanish.  I was out in the shadows for an hour and a half without incident and caught my first picture of the Southern Cross.  No, it’s not the best, but it is some useful data

"Warm" and "inviting" are not two words I use when describing an observatory.  But that is exactly what makes the Observatory Andean Astronomical a galactic wonder for visiting star gazers.  Although located just 20 minutes from Santiago, the facility boasts a large host of astronomical instruments under some beautiful dark skies. But it's the facility itself that demonstrates that astronomy doesn't have to be cold and sterile.  Envision gas flames around your observatory for people to warm up (yes they turn them down when observing).  Spacious surroundings are then filled with comfortable chairs and sofas, wine, cheese, and pastries, exquisite decor and state of the art video systems showing the night sky and the wonders of the universe.  A separate theater/classroom brings groups together for lively interactive programs.  The staff is delightful and well informed catering to the needs of the group as a cross between an amazing hostess and an astronomical tour guide.  Step outside onto the deck and you have comfortable chairs to sit back and view the heavens through binoculars.  Or you can choose to view the southern deep sky wonders through any of the six telescopes set up on piers.  A separate roll-off roof houses the larger instruments including a pair of 16" telescopes.
Interested? You need to set up an appointment to visit, and you can check out those details on their website at: .  The Observatory Andean Astronomical gives a whole new meaning to "observatory" and "public outreach".  It reminds us that astronomy should not only be fun, but warm, inviting, comfortable and classy.

Photo courtesy of Tim Spuck                                                             Photo courtesy of Tim Spuck

There are so many reasons to fall in love with this observatory.  The main building is modern, yet laid out so well you're not certain that it is an observatory at first.  The wooden dome is oddly shaped but in a beautiful way, and you understand that it is unique in the universe of astronomical "domes". Inside it houses a modern 16" Meade telescope.  Walk further along the path and you find yourself in the past. At the top of a ridge there are a number of functional archeoastronomy sculptures set up along a meridian that utilize the Sun to display the various seasons of the year. It was fun and creative to take images through them, but it wasn't until later that I realized that my focus was a bit off.  My friend Gary Becker sent me an email commenting on that fact (as I knew he would) and also offered some good advice on focusing.  When it comes to photography, Gary is excellent which is why Dave and I always joke, "If Gary likes our image it must be good."  And that is exactly why we send our images his way.  He is a wonderful resource as well as a wonderful friend. It was here at the Cerro Mayu Observatory that I became reacquainted with the Large Magellanic Cloud sitting serenely over a hill.  I smiled.  It's been 14 years since I last laid eyes on this famous galaxy. I felt right at home.

Large Magellanic Cloud is at the center right                                                                                                                    

June 24- CTIO
I had two nights at Cerro Tololo, living on the mountain and staying in a dormitory, but there wouldn't be much sleep.  The Moon was just past first quarter so the early part of the evening would be dedicated to taking time lapse images with the observatories lit up by moonlight.  EPO Juan Seguel, was kind enough to allow Ryan Hannahoe and me to use his Celestron telescope for the evening.  I was prepared for this opportunity with the camera, but the wind was pushing 30 mph, and the telescope was not equipped with any guiding capability.  I didn't spend much time attempting to image through the telescope, but I could use it for visual use.  The T2i was set taking time exposures of the Blanco 4 m, while Ryan used the Canon 60Da for fisheye shots of the observatories.  We met up around midnight when the Moon set, and I took the Canon 60Da up for long exposures using the Ioptron Star Tracker.  But the Star Tracker didn't work, and I didn't have time to troubleshoot the problem.  The Milky Way was high overhead, but I couldn't take more than a 35 second exposure without trailing issues.  Ryan and I left the telescopes around 2:30 AM and headed for the dormitory.  We got lost a couple of times on our half mile trek in the dark, but frankly we would have been lost in the daytime too.  I did discover the problem with the Ioptron mount back at the dormitory and was able to effect repairs.  I didn't have much time to image and by 6:30 AM was ready to call it quits, but the best was yet to come.  There in the east was the zodiacal light.  I saw it in Africa in 2001 and always wanted to image this reflected glow of dust and ice in the plane of the solar system.  It was the perfect ending to an amazing night at Cerro Tololo.

La Serena and Milky Way from CTIO                                                                   Southern Cross
Photo courtesy of Ryan Hannahoe                                                                           Zodiacal Light selfie

June 25- CTIO
The Moon won't set until after 3 AM giving me very little dark sky to work with.  I started my imaging near the dining hall and decided to use the 55mm lens for "close-ups" rather than the wide field 11 mm.  It' a tough lens for focus and took 45 minutes to get tight points of lights on the stars and to tweak the Ioptron Star Tracker.  I secured the lens focus using gaffers tape.  My main concern was not the Moon as much as it was the clouds moving in from the east.  I was able to get some nice  Milky Way closeups using the 55 mm, but when the Milky Way was at the zenith the Moons brightness was still overwhelming and the clouds started to overtake our galaxy.  The images were less than stellar.  I returned to the dormitory around 1 AM as the clouds overtook the sky and decided to take a nap.  I set the camera on automatic for a time lapse while I slept and returned at 3 AM to view a pristine sky. I was able to work with the Magellanic Clouds at that hour and to my joy I saw the zodiacal light once again in the morning.  I could view it visually arching skyward to about 60 degrees above the horizon.  My fish-eye images showed it past the zenith. My two dark nights on this journey were now completed, but the opportunity to view at this site is a highlight in stargazing I will never forget.

Small Magellanic Cloud                                                            Large Magellanic Cloud

Eta Carina                                                                                      Milky Way Sagittarius detail

We stopped at this famous lunar-like desert landscape and received an astronomical bonus.  A halo around the Sun caused by ice crystals in the upper atmosphere.  Truly this is a magical place where astronomy happens both night and day.

The planets Venus and Jupiter would meet in a tight conjunction on this evening being only 1/3 of a degree apart.  This would be a bright enough event that I could catch it at Bicentennial Park, and I wanted to use the bicycle sculpture as the backdrop.  My only regret is that I wish I had gotten there earlier to setup and take advantage of the purplish twilight.I was pleased with the results however, and later discovered that it was cloudy back home and I would've missed it.  

There is nothing better than imaging the sky with giant heads (Moai).  Three of us took an extended trip to the island, and although it was Full Moon, the light from our close celestial neighbor lit up the Moai nicely for pictures.  It also produces a blue background to the sky.  The Moon did a "spooky" job lighting up the Moai's eyes for the conjunction image.  I discovered that it's rare to really have a "clear" night on the island.  Clouds usually cover the heavens rather quickly, and leave the same way.  I was able to get a few hours of no clouds without moonlight.  It was a magical time.  I sat there alone by the shore letting the cameras do their work accompanied by one of the many dogs in town who decided to lay down next to me.  The Moai in the star trail image was lit up by car lights.  An amazing ending to an amazing journey to the southern hemisphere.

1 comment:

  1. Looks like a successful trip and one to cherish for many years! Fantastic pictures!