Astronomy

Why are all space observatories in Chile?

Why are all space observatories in Chile?


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Anytime I hear about astronomy there is observatory in Chile involved. Sounds like there are the best conditions to watch space. Anyone care to explain what is the reason?


[disclaimer: I am also not a true observer, but I have visited observatories before, and I do amateur observations regularly]

Definitely not all observatories are in Chile. Chile, however (the Atacama desert in particular) is an excellent location for an astronomical observatory. The Atacama desert has one of the darkest night skies on Earth, which is excellent for astronomical observations.

As Warrick mentioned, the ideal observatory is located at the highest possible altitude, such that there is as little air as possible between the telescope and the stars. Something else to consider, though, is that if the telescope should be manned by humans permanently it cannot be located too high due both to the difficulty for humans to function at extremely high altitudes and the price tag of getting the telescope parts up there. The two observatories in the Atacame desert of Chile are both located at an altitude of 2.5 km, which is definitely not the highest point on earth (the Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea observatories mentioned by Warrick are both located at higher altitudes).

Another requirement is that the location should be as cold as possible. This is not to torture the poor observers operating the telescope, but because warm air tends to be more turbulent. More turbulence in the air means less precise observations. However, as temperature tends to decrease with increasing altitude, this is usually automatically satisfied. Having a stable temperature also helps. If the telescope heats up during the day, the temperature of the air inside will differ from that of the surrounding air at night. Since the refractive index of air depends (although very slightly) on temperature, this will cause further deviation of light rays from their ideal straight paths, leading to less accurate measurements. For this reason professional telescopes usually contain some kind of temperature regulation.

A combination of the above reasons is why observatories are in the locations they are. Theoretically, the best observatory location has been found to be Ridge A on Antarctica. The reason you always hear about Chile is not its location. There are other locations that are at least as well suited as the Atacama desert for astronomical observations.

The most important reason you always hear about Chile is probably that it is home to the VLT, or Very Large Telescope, which is the most productive ground-based telescope in the optical region (according to Wikipedia). It uses interferometry combining the observations from four individual telescopes. This makes the combined effective aperture of the VLT the biggest in the world. As both the most productive telescope and the telescope with the largest effective aperture it produces a lot of results, and those results are quite likely to be important enough to appear in popular science articles.

However Chile is definitely not the only possible location for observatories. Apart from Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa, the Observatory del Roque de los Muchachos on La Palma is the first example that pops up in my mind. It is home to the GTC, the worlds largest single-mirrored optical telescope.


I write this as a theorist who's never visited a modern observatory, so I will gladly defer to any true observers who do come along. But as far as I know, the best sites for astronomical observatories (certainly in optical or near-IR) combine a few common features. Above all, you want to be high and dry: above as much of that pesky atmosphere as possible. You don't want turbulent air distorting the image (related to what we usually call "twinkling"), nor do you want clouds to stop you from seeing the sky at all. Ideally, you also want to be reasonably close to the equator, so that you get access to different parts of the sky at different times of year. You also want to be far away from light pollution but the "high and dry" objective tends to bring that anyway.

With just these few things in mind, the ideal locations for telescopes become quite clear. The summits of Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea on the Island of Hawaii (i.e. Big Island) are certainly up there. The top US telescopes are usually up there. For the Southern Hemisphere, the Atacama Desert in Chile also combines these features. For that reason, the European Southern Observatory, when it formed in the late 50s and early 60s, decided on the Chilean site, and they've been building many of their most advanced telescopes there ever since.

The news stories you hear are probably based on telescopes at either the Paranal or La Silla Observatories.

Edit: As pointed out in a comment below, there are other significant observatories in Chile.


The earth's atmosphere absorbs or attenuates many frequencies of the spectrum. While radio and visible light make it through pretty well, other regions are blocked and usually require (expensive) space-based telescopes for observations.

Infrared is strongly absorbed by water vapor. It turns out that the Atacama is dry enough that you can do quite a bit of IR observations from the ground. Combined with the altitude, almost no other place on earth could support such an instrument. IR observations are important for objects at high redshift, including information on the oldest galaxies.


World's largest space observatory opens in Chile (Update)

Radio telescope antennas of the ALMA (Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array) project are seen in San Pedro de Atacama , Atacama desert, some 1500 km north of Santiago, on March 13, 2013. The ALMA, an international partnership project of Europe, North America and East Asia with the cooperation of Chile, is presently the largest astronomical project in the world.

What is thought to be the world's largest ground-based observatory opened Wednesday in northern Chile, wielding unprecedented power to peer into the remotest regions of the universe.

The ALMA space observatory was inaugurated here on a desert plateau some 5,000 meters (16,400 feet) above sea level, at a ceremony attended by President Sebastian Pinera and other dignitaries.

"Here in this desert, the driest in the world, it is a great privilege to inaugurate the observatory," Pinera said.

Calling it "the world's most powerful," he said the observatory will make "a significant contribution to humanity, enable a better understanding of the universe in which we live, and perhaps help us discover life beyond Earth."

"ALMA is a huge telescope 16 kilometers (10 miles) in diameter," said the facility's director Thijs de Graauw, as it was declared officially opened.

Amid excited applause, 59 of the 66 antennas slowly began to rotate and point toward the interior of the universe. By October, all the antennas will be fully installed and operational.

Alma Director Thijs De Graauw speaks during the inauguration of a Radio telescope antenna of the ALMA (Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array) project in the San Pedro de Atacama , Atacama desert, some 1500 km north of Santiago, on March 13, 2013.

Gianni Marconi, an astronomer at the massive ground array of telescopes, recently proudly proclaimed to AFP that ALMA is "the largest observatory that has ever been built."

ALMA—short for the Atacama Large Millimeter-submillimeter Array, an acronym which means "soul" in Spanish—is a joint effort among North American, European and Asian agencies.

The observatory is located near Pedro de Atacama, a desert town popular with tourists.

With almost no humidity or vegetation to block its view of the heavens, ALMA's antennas range in diameter from seven meters (23 feet) to 12 meters (39 feet.)

"There is virtually no water vapor, there is just so little that whatever light is emitted from a heavenly body, galaxy or star, it gets here with no interference" Marconi said.

When scientists who homed in on this site for ALMA said they were looking for a place that had a high altitude, low humidity, sunny weather and fairly easy logistical access.

De Graauw told AFP recently that ALMA's ultra-precise equipment would be used to seek answers to big questions—star formation, the birth of planets and how the system was created after the Big Bang.

Unlike optical or infrared telescopes, ALMA can capture the faint glow and gas present in the formation of the first stars, galaxies and planets in an extremely cold region of the universe.

"It is a revolution in the history of the universe in the realm of millimetric and sub-millimetric waves, which can look through clouds of dust and focus on the formation of stars themselves," De Graauw added.

"Telescopes cannot see what is happening inside these clouds. With ALMA, we can. And that is like opening a new window."


DISCOVERY IN PERIL

Just over 100 kilometers southwest of the Giant Magellan Telescope, the populations of Coquimbo and La Serena ballooned by almost 70 percent from 1992 to 2012. Nightclubs, sports arenas and sprawling suburbs all spew bright, artificial light into the night sky.

Scientists at the Gemini Observatory, located on an ocher mountaintop over 60 kilometers southeast of those cities, say increasing light pollution has already had a measurable effect.

“You can already detect streetlights at certain wavelengths,” said Rene Rutten, an astronomer at Gemini.

“If you were to stand up here on a dark, moonless night, you would see urban areas in the distance, and even what you can see just by the naked eye is very, very significant.”

The expansion of nearby Route 41 linking La Serena to Argentina is another threat, said Chris Smith, Chile mission head for a Washington-based research group currently constructing the $665 million Large Synoptic Survey Telescope adjacent to the Gemini.

If the proper measures are not taken, he estimated, creeping light pollution could materially degrade the region’s skies in as little as a decade.

There are few official records of light pollution in Chile and measuring it quantitatively over time is difficult. However, astronomers say artificial glow has increasingly bled from the horizon higher into the night sky in recent years.

Many scientists are quick to add that Chile’s skies still allow for excellent observations. But they complain that enforcement of toughened ground lighting regulations has been spotty.

To take up the slack, they are working directly with communities to build light fixtures that radiate only downward and at certain spectra.

While most nearby towns have been receptive, astronomers say, some business lobbies complain of the potential impacts on industry, while local authorities have expressed safety concerns about darker streets.

Scientists have also asked the United Nations to label the region a World Heritage Site, a measure they hope will maintain the inky skies above.

“We’re trying to answer very fundamental questions: How did the universe begin? How did the sun form?” asked the University of Chile’s Blanc.

“That’s something that belongs to humanity. And we think we have a duty, as a country, to protect it.”


Astronomy Faces A Field-Defining Choice In Choosing The Next Steps For The TMT

This artist's rendering shows what a completed version of the proposed Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) . [+] will look like once construction is completed atop Mauna Kea. However, whether this observatory will be built at this site or not is still undecided.

For many years, astronomers have looked forward to a coming revolution in ground-based astronomy: going from the current generation of 8-to-10 meter telescopes to the next generation of 30-meter class telescopes. Approximately a decade ago, a variety of partnerships selected their preferred sites, instruments to build, and facilities to construct. Now, in 2019, two of them are right on track, while one — the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) in Hawaii — is years behind.

The overwhelming majority of astronomers recognize that the preferred site for TMT, atop Hawaii's Mauna Kea, would be the technically superior location to build it. But doing so would ignore the objections of many citizens whose concerns and values have been marginalized for over a century. As astronomers prepare for a field-defining choice, here's what everyone should know.

A distant galaxy in the Universe is presently able to be viewed at only a certain limited resolution . [+] and level-of-detail at present. The maximum capabilities of the Hubble Space Telescope (center) have taken us incredibly far into the Universe, but a next-generation ground-based telescope, like TMT (simulation, at right) could show us much, much more and in a shorter amount of observing time than we've ever seen thus far.

Thirty Meter Telescope/Associated Press

If you want to know what's out there in the Universe, beyond the currently explored frontiers, you have to take a substantial step beyond your current limits. In astronomy, there are all sorts of ways to do this.

  1. You can improve the quality of your optics, focusing the maximum amount of light possible to as tight a precision as you can.
  2. You can improve your instrumentation, making the most out of every single photon that arrives.
  3. You can improve your techniques and facilities for accounting for Earth's atmosphere, like speckle imaging or adaptive optics.
  4. Or, most simply, you can build a bigger primary mirror, increasing your resolution and light-gathering power simultaneously.

While practically all cutting-edge telescopes have benefitted from the second and third of these, it takes a new generation of telescopes to achieve the fourth.

A side-view of the completed GMT as it will look in the telescope enclosure. It will be able to . [+] image Earth-like worlds out to 30 light years away, and Jupiter-like worlds many hundreds of light years distant. GMT is slated to take its 'first light' image in 2023, and should be completed in 2025. TMT, by comparison, has not even begun construction.

Giant Magellan Telescope - GMTO Corporation

The three telescopes that are currently under construction or being planned for construction are the Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT), the European Extremely Large Telescope (ELT), and the TMT. Both GMT and ELT are located in the Andes mountain range in Chile, at high-altitude, dry, clear sites. They are 25 and 39 meters in diameter, respectively, and reside in the Earth's southern hemisphere. Both are under construction, and expect to be completed in 2025 or 2026 according to the latest timetables.

The TMT, on the other hand, is the only one located in the northern hemisphere, at an even better astronomical site for altitude and atmospheric concerns: atop Mauna Kea in Hawaii. While all three take slightly different approaches to optical design, instrumentation, and adaptive optics, their specifications are competitive with and complementary to one another, as well as with next-generation space-based observatories.

Artist's impression of the Extremely Large Telescope (ELT) in its enclosure on Cerro Armazones, a . [+] 3046-metre mountaintop in Chile's Atacama Desert. The 39-meter ELT will be the largest optical/infrared telescope in the world, but much like the GMT, will not be able to view certain regions of the sky visible from Earth's northern hemisphere.

However, there's an enormous difference between the Chilean sites and the Hawaiian site. While both are home to enormous numbers of existing astronomical observatories, the new 30-meter class telescopes are being received very differently. The local populations in Chile are overwhelmingly supportive of the telescopes' construction, seeing it as a tremendous opportunity for the economic, infrastructure, and intellectual development of the local region.

While there are many Hawaiians, both native and non-native, who see exploring the Universe as an opportunity for young people to advance science, just as their ancestors did, that sentiment is neither the only one nor an overwhelming one. A substantial percentage of the native Hawaiian population not only opposes the construction of any new telescopes or structures atop Mauna Kea, but view the very proposal of the TMT atop Mauna Kea as continuing a long history of disregard for their basic rights.

The summit of Mauna Kea contains many of the world's most advanced, powerful telescopes. This is due . [+] to a combination of Mauna Kea's equatorial location, high altitude, quality seeing, and the fact that it's generally, but not always, above the cloud line. But the physical properties of this astronomical site cannot be the only concern.

Subaru Telescope collaboration

A look at the broader picture easily reveals why. The history of Hawaii tells a story of imperialism, colonization, exploitation and legal violence. The United States of America overthrew the Hawaiian government in 1893. An official US investigation concluded that the "United States diplomatic and military representatives had abused their authority and were responsible for the change in government," and the overthrow marks one of only five times in history that the government of the United States has formally apologized for its actions.

But the apology did not result in a return of self-government or self-determination. Hawaii was annexed by the United States in 1898, and became the Territory of Hawaii, with a United States Governor, in 1900. At no point did the wishes of the Native Hawaiian population play a meaningful role in the outcome.

A detachment of United States Marines in Hawaii, circa 1893. Despite the official story told at the . [+] time by the soldiers and their commanders, history has generally recognized that this was an act of aggression and imperialism that has been condemned nationally and internationally. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Astronomy, however, offers the incredible potential of building bridges across cultures and civilizations. The same cosmic story that the Universe tells us about ourselves is shared between all humans and creatures on Earth, and our knowledge is something for all to share and delight in. The goal of increasing knowledge, understanding, awe, and wonder is a goal shared by the astronomy community and the overwhelming majority of the world.

But astronomy, like any human endeavor that requires a particular site to do it, ought not to be done at the expense of the local population. In past years and decades, many entities and organizations — including local and national government entities — have made unilateral decisions negatively affecting native populations. They are commonly viewed as primitive as backwards as uneducated. To put it bluntly, their right to decide how their land gets used or what it gets used for has been taken from them.

In 2015, a large group of native Hawaiians formed 'Protect Mauna Kea' and blocked the beginning of . [+] new construction atop Mauna Kea. While there are many different perspectives on where and how the TMT should be built, the right to self-determination of indigenous people should not be swept aside any longer.

Protect Mauna Kea / Instagram

Over the past few years, large segments of the native Hawaiian population have banded together in what has been described as a cultural awakening. Many people have the misconception that this is about one particular telescope, or about astronomers not doing enough to support Hawaii, or outreach and education, or some other easily-solved issue.

It is not. It is about whether the native Hawaiian population can, at last, choose to say "no" to something that is being imposed on them by a foreign, outside force and have that choice meaningfully affect the outcome. The public perception is that the TMT will eventually be built atop Mauna Kea irrespective of any actions taken or opinions held by the indigenous people of Hawaii. That the outcome is an inevitable as it was at Standing Rock, and there's little difference between science-hungry astronomers and profit-hungry oil pipeline builders.

The summit of Mauna Kea, a dormant volcano on the Big Island of Hawaii, is a popular attraction for . [+] tourists. A small number of tour companies take vans full of tourists up to the summit to view the sunset, followed by stargazing after nightfall. There are observatories and telescopes at the summit, where scientists do research. Native Hawaiians have protested construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope. The summit is considered sacred in traditional Hawaiian culture, and the presence of the telescopes at the summit is viewed by many as an unthinkable desecration.

A lot of people, even within the astronomy community, are having a difficult time understanding why a segment of the population is reacting to TMT with the furor and vitriol they've seen. I like to imagine a hypothetical scenario where the world was somewhat different, and that instead of atop Mauna Kea, the best site (on astronomical merits alone) to build a new cutting-edge telescope in the northern hemisphere was situated elsewhere.

Like alongside the Western Wall in Jerusalem. Or in the city of Mecca. Or Bethlehem, or Vatican City.

You likely recognize these latter locations as not only sacred, but of enormous cultural and religious importance to millions — if not billions — of people. If scientists in any field determined that these locations had scientific value that merited new construction and a dramatic change to the landscape, you'd immediately accept that other concerns beyond the mere scientific ones had merit.

Double Lasers from KECK I and KECK II create an artificial laser guide star to better help the . [+] telescope focus on a particular location and account for the atmosphere's properties, taking advantage of some of the most advanced adaptive optics systems and techinques in the world. These telescopes sit atop the summit of Mauna Kea, and were the largest optical telescopes in the world for multiple decades.

Ethan Tweedy Photography - http://www.ethantweedie.com/

Yet when native Hawaiians say that Mauna Kea is sacred, not everyone treats those statements as having equal validity. When someone from a culture we're more unfamiliar with views a location as so precious and important that nothing else matters — the same way a new parent might view the life of their child — we owe it to every living human on Earth to give them the same acceptance.

When a large number of people band together to oppose the construction of a project such as this, it's true: they are civilly disobeying a legal order. Just three weeks ago, protesters were arrested, and there were many who feared that violence would be used against the peaceful demonstrators. But just because the law is on one side doesn't mean that right is also on that same side.

In this July 21, 2019 photo provided by the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources, . [+] protesters block a road to the summit of Mauna Kea in Hawaii. Scientists want to build the telescope atop Mauna Kea because it is one of the best sites in the world for viewing the skies. Hawaii Gov. David Ige has ordered the closure of the road as a way to clear a path for construction equipment. The clash between the US Government and a large group of natives opposed to what they're trying to implement is tense and eerie, and should make astronomers very uncomfortable. (Dan Dennison/Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources via AP)

Science, when done properly, is an endeavor undertaken by humanity as a single civilization, for the benefit of all and to the detriment of none. Yes, it's true that the TMT has chosen a site for construction designed to minimize its environmental impact across a wide variety of metrics, including to minimize the observatory's visibility from Hawaii's population. Yes, the President of the American Astronomical Society has put out a nuanced and compassionate statement cautioning against many of the pitfalls of the past. And yes, many astronomers are opposed to TMT in its current form on ethical grounds, with nearly 1,000 astronomers signing a letter against it.

It's true that from a purely technical perspective, Mauna Kea is vastly superior to the second-choice site in Spain, which is at a lower elevation by approximately 1,800 meters (about 1.1 miles). But all of these facts, true though they might be, are not the only factors at play here. At stake are two completely independent issues: the future of astronomy and the right to self-determination of a historically marginalized indigenous population.

On July 14, 2019, the sun can be seen setting behind telescopes at the summit of Mauna Kea. . [+] Scientists are expected to explore fundamental questions about our universe using the proposed TMT, including questions like whether there’s life outside our solar system and how stars and galaxies formed in the earliest years of the universe. But some Native Hawaiians don’t want the Thirty Meter Telescope to be built at Mauna Kea’s summit, saying it will further harm a place they consider sacred. (AP Photo/Caleb Jones, File)

From the perspective of an astrophysicist, of course I want the best tools in the best locations the Earth has to offer in our endeavor to explore and understand the Universe. But I also want them on as fast a timetable as possible. Construction could proceed in Spain imminently, as soon as the permitting process is complete more than four years have passed since the first attempts at beginning construction in Hawaii and ground has not yet been broken on Mauna Kea, with another (likely) 2 year delay have just been enacted. Realistically, the TMT may not be operational until the 2030s if construction doesn't begin imminently.

But the days of steamrolling native populations are long overdue to be behind us. We should be focusing on honoring the traditions of native Hawaiians and and the cultural significance of Mauna Kea in particular.

Black and white vintage print, depicting the Hawaiian King Kamehameha, wearing a mahiole (feathered . [+] helmet) and short tunic, performing a feat during which he defends himself against six simultaneously thrown spears, by deflecting three with his own spear and catching the other three in his other hand, published in John George Wood's volume "The uncivilized races of men in all countries of the world, being a comprehensive account of their manners and customs, and of their physical, social, mental, moral and religious characteristics", 1877. Astronomers must discontinue the tradition of exocitizing and exploiting native populations of Hawaii and the natural resources present there. (Photo by Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images)

I'd like to see observatories dedicated to King Kamehameha, rather than large-monied donors. I'd like to see astronomers expand the 'Imiloa Astronomy Center, dedicated to Hawaiian culture, history, and its intersection with the night sky. I'd like to see long-term plans and initiatives designed to better the future economic and career prospects of young Hawaiians. And, most of all, I'd like to see an expressed willingness to go elsewhere if their presence is not wanted.

It takes a lot of courage to say "no," especially when money and power are not on your side. I hope that if "no" is the answer the astronomy community hears, they're courageous enough to recognize a cutting-edge telescope at their second-choice site is a superior outcome to denying any group of people the right to their own self-determination.

Note: An earlier version of this piece contended that construction could have begun in Spain in 2015 the author reached out to a TMT executive who stated the facts as follows, "We still don’t have a building permit in La Palma and the IAC and the Cabildo of La Palma are still working on the land concession to add the proposed TMT site to the area approved for astronomy." You are reading the corrected version that does not contain this error.


Chile’s best dark-sky locations

Gabriela Mistral Dark Sky Sanctuary, Elqui Valley

In the Coquimbo Region, 500km north of Santiago and 80km east of La Serena is the world’s first Dark Sky Sanctuary, named after the Chilean poet Gabriela Mistral.

Designated as such in August 2015 by the International Dark Sky Association (IDA), the site includes the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy’s (AURA) observatories in Cerro Tololo and Cerro Pachon.

The darkness of the sky and atmospheric stability make it a must-visit place for stargazing.

Cochiguaz Valley

Coquimbo region is called the ‘region of the stars’ by the Chilean people.

This is an expression that cannot be disputed, especially in the Cochiguaz Valley, which is one of the best places to go for viewing the Milky Way in Chile.

In the heart of the Chilean Andes, at 2,000m altitude, it is an amazing place during daytime and makes you feel as if you were on another planet.

When night falls, you feel like you have been transported to another world.

Its marvellous sky enables stargazers to admire the shape and the dust gas of the Milky Way (see above image), which appears like a slightly under-exposed monochrome picture.

Salar de Atacama

Any astronomy visit to Chile should include its most famous astronomical destination: the Atacama desert.

To reach this northern part of the country, 1000km north from La Serena, a flight connection is recommended.

Reams of night spots can be discovered within this vast piece of land and selecting a single one is not an easy task.

One appropriate place, far enough from nearby towns to avoid light pollution, is a flat area located in the salty part of the desert called the Salar de Atacama.

From there, an unforgettable 360° view of the Milky Way will amaze those looking for quiet and dark locations for astrophotography.

San Pedro de Atacama

Dark places for practising amateur astronomy and capturing deep-sky images can also be found around San Pedro De Atacama, the most popular town in the desert.

San Pedro has a direct connection to the city of Calama by taking taxi or shuttle in a trip that takes under an hour.

Although Calama has a population of about 5,000, the light pollution remains pretty low once you reach 2km from the centre.

Here you can find lots of accommodation with fantastic views of the night sky.

San Pedro itself also boasts a range of astronomical tours and a lot of observatories worth a visit.


Powerful Chile Earthquake Leaves Astronomy Observatories Unscathed

The massive earthquake that struck Chile on Tuesday (April 1) left three main European-built observatories in the region relatively untouched despite causing damage and a tsunami along the country's western coast.

The powerful 8.2-magnitude earthquake struck about 60 miles (95 kilometers) northwest of the coastal city Iquique, causing several landslides and triggering a tsunami that rose some 7 feet (2.1 meters). The earthquake struck at 8:46 p.m. local time (7:46 EDT). A powerful 7.6-magnitude aftershock rattled the area late Wednesday night (April 2).

The European Southern Observatory (ESO) operates three major observatories in Chile, each with multiple telescopes: the Paranal Observatory, which is home to Europe's Very Large Telescope the La Silla Observatory, which hosts various telescopes, such as the 2.2-m Max-Planck telescope, 1.2-m Swiss Telescope and the 1.5-m Danish Telescope and ALMA and APEX, or the the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array and the Atacama Pathfinder Experiment. (Also in the Chajnantor region is Caltech's Chajnantor Observatory.)

The epicenter was located approximately 310 miles (500 km) from both the ALMA/APEX and Paranal sites.

"The quake was felt at the ALMA camp as a prolonged swaying, which lasted for about 2 minutes," the ALMA Observatory said in a statement.

However, none of the ESO facilities reported any damage.

No casualties were reported among ESO staff, but many with friends and family in the harder-hit regions of Iquique and Arica, another city close to the earthquake's episode, were affected. The ESO reports that all staff on site has been able to contact their family.

"ESO expresses its deepest condolences to the families of the victims, and its sympathy and support for all those affected by the statement," the organization said in a separate press release.

A larger 8.8-magnitude earthquake that struck Chile in 2010 also left the observatories untouched.


Were Space and Solar Observatories Shut Down at the Same Time Around the World This Week?

Amongst all the hype over the past couple of weeks about the closure of the National Solar Observatory in Sunspot, New Mexico, has been a persistent rumour – one that takes the story from simply being ‘mysterious’ to downright conspiratorial: that not only had that observatory been evacuated, but that there had been other space and solar observatories shut down at the same time.

The suggestion, of course, was that these observatories were being stopped from observing some ground-breaking celestial event: alien space ships, a civilization-ending solar event, or Planet X revealing itself.

This rumour about multiple observatories being shut down was spread far and wide by popular ‘news’ websites (I use the phrase with a wince) such as Zero Hedge and the UK’s Express – I’m not going to link, because stupid clickbait doesn’t deserve it.

But this is the claim that has been spread far and wide:

Now, I’m going to quickly run through why this claim is absolute crap, and do it with minimal effort, because we all have finite lives and who really wants to spend time debunking awful things like this?

Our tool? The Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine, which lets us view pages from websites archived at specific times. Using this, we find that:

  • The SOAR telescope link has been a 301 redirect to a new website for more than two years previous to this ‘outage’. Here’s the new link.
  • The BRT Tenerife telescope webcam’s most recent snapshot was in 2017, but was working then – but it’s not even a sky camera, it’s just a webcam showing the telescope facility. And if you go to the webcam part of their site, you’ll find a link to a new webcam of the facility, along with a functioning ‘all sky cam’.
  • The Maunakea telescope webcam broke in June 2017 and has shown the same image since then, along with an error message. Furthermore: like the one above, it’s not a sky camera, it’s just a webcam showing the telescope facility.
  • The Canada-France-Hawaii Observatory appears to have broken on Nov 1st 2017, with snapshots taken earlier this year all showing a picture taken at that time.
  • The JAT Observatory webcam is offline because the domain expired sometime before May 31 this year, as this snapshot from that date shows.

So, were all these space observatories shut down around the world at the same time? No, it’s just a collection of broken webcam links…and yet it spread across the globe and made headlines in major outlets because (a) websites will use any nonsense clickbait they can find to get your eyeballs, and thus advertising dollars, and (b) plenty of people consume this sort of thing without stopping to think “well that doesn’t sound likely” and then checking it properly, rather than quickly posting it to social media where it spreads further.

Let’s all try and do better folks, there’s plenty of worthwhile mysteries out there that deserve our time and attention more than this.


Huge Observatory in Andes Takes Shape

Astronomers celebrated on Friday the formal acceptance of the first North American antenna by the Joint ALMA Observatory in Chile.

The new observation tool will consist of an array of 40-foot (12-meter) radio telescopes, 64 in all, each linked together to make up the world's largest radio telescope to observe at millimeter and submillimeter wavelengths. Emissions at these levels have wavelengths longer than infrared, but shorter than radio waves and aren't visible by the naked eye.

ALMA, the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array is being assembled high in the Chilean Andes by a global partnership.

With ALMA, astronomers will study the universe, the molecular gas and tiny dust grains from which stars, planetary systems, galaxies and even life are formed. ALMA will provide new insights into the formation of stars and planets and will reveal distant galaxies in the early universe, which we will see as they were over 10 billion years ago.

The 12-meter-diameter antenna delivered today is the first of 25 being provided by North America's ALMA partners, whose efforts are led by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory and supported by the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) in cooperation with the National Research Council of Canada and the National Science Council of Taiwan. The antenna was manufactured by General Dynamics SATCOM Technologies.

The acceptance comes just weeks after the first ALMA antenna--produced under the direction of the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan on behalf of ALMA's East Asian partners--was handed over to the observatory.

"These ALMA antennas are technological marvels," said ALMA Director Thijs de Graauw. "They are more precise and more capable than any ever made. Their performance in the harsh winds and temperatures of our high-altitude site bodes well for the observatory's future."

A single 12-meter antenna's dish is bigger than the largest optical telescope's reflective mirror, but to match the sharpness achieved by an optical telescope, a millimeter-wavelength dish would have to be impossibly large, miles across. ALMA will combine signals from dozens of antennas spread across miles of desert to synthesize the effective sharpness of such a single, gigantic antenna. The process, called "interferometry," involves analysis of the ways in which the signals coming from each antenna interfere with one another.

"This is a major milestone for the ALMA project," explained Philip Puxley, NSF's ALMA program manager. "With two antennas now on site, we begin the real work of combining signals from them. We are advancing toward ALMA's ultimate goal of surpassing by tenfold existing technology in this area for sharper resolution, sensitivity and image quality."

ALMA officials expect the pace of antenna acceptance to accelerate. "We have nine North American antennas on site already," said Adrian Russell, NRAO's ALMA project director. "Following handover of Number Three, we plan to get one through the test procedure each month. Additional North American antennas will be arriving in Chile at a rate of one every two months, and General Dynamics is on track to complete delivery of these systems within days of the original schedule."

The antennas, which each weigh about 100 tons, can be moved to different positions in order to reconfigure the ALMA telescope. This repositioning will be carried out by two custom-designed transporters, each of which is some 33 feet wide, 66 feet long, and has 28 wheels.

When completed early this decade, ALMA will have a total of 66 antennas, with an option for further expansion, provided by partners in North America, Europe and East Asia. The first European antennas, produced under the auspices of the European Organization for Astronomical Research in the Southern Hemisphere are scheduled to begin arriving early this year.

ALMA is supported in North America by NSF in cooperation with the National Research Council of Canada and the National Science Council of Taiwan. ALMA construction and operations are led on behalf of North America by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, which is operated under cooperative agreement by Associated Universities, Inc.


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