2015A Day 16 Part I: the ‘Milk’ in the Milky Way

I crossed the equator for the first time 3 days ago. In the Caribbean we were greeted by a magnificent light show in the distance — fireworks stochastically set off in a dense mass of ominous clouds. But by sunrise we have arrived in more congenial territory, mountainous country with a jagged horizon as far as the eye could see, whose majesty is paralleled by few sights on the planet. I had a good feeling — of my friends who hail from the southern hemisphere, all are extraordinarily hearty. Something about the down-under latitudes and the inversion of seasons. We took off in May and landed in late November. Lol Earth.

Chile is not exactly as I had pictured. This is not surprising considering outside of astronomy, my impression of this country has been chiefly fed by Alejandro Jodorwsky. The airport at Santiago is very modern and filled with familiar sights like Dunkin’ Donuts, apparently popular with the locals considering quite a few have transported boxes of donuts onto the next lag of the journey to La Serena. Prices are jaw-dropping before division by the currency exchange rate, and even then they are comparable with their American counterparts. The drive through La Serena gave a glimpse into town life — neat, bustling, and not impersonal. The road along the Pacific was oddly reminiscent of California’s HWY 1. At some point we left civilization behind to be engulfed by the endless desert, taking the fork away from the ESO site at La Silla, nearly running into road donkeys, and finally stopped next to the LCO lodging. Megallan just beyond on a local summit.

Life as an observer here is spoiling. The chefs and staffs are always eager to greet and help with any need one may imagine to voice. One can always count on learning some phrases in the Chilean style of Espanol during their stay. Be sure to order scrambled eggs in the morning — an absolute delight. In terms of local products, Ben and I are constantly imbibing Minute Maid peach nectar. I was sick of Empanadas after Sunday but this is apparently a very localized phenomenon (see previous posts).

The hike up to Magellan never fails to be a lesson in atmospheric scale heights. Ben says that up here the pressure is about 0.7 atm (hmm I should like to test the boiling point of water). My breathlessness at the top is grossly disproportionate to this claim. Nevertheless, the ascent beats having a Stairmaster in the basement any day! Our pilgrim every dusk is rewarded by a glorious sunset.

The remarkable things about the best sites for professional astronomy are the silence and darkness. The environment is so free of the white noise one is accustomed to in an urban settings, that it is at first startling but by no means unappreciated. The darkness is prerequisite — this is where you come to verify that there is indeed ‘milk’ in the Milky Way. When the moon is down, it is dangerous to navigate without a flashlight.

For somebody with minimal observing experience (but thanks to Ben this is now less the case!), Katie, Jared, and the operating team at Clay are perfect — alert, knowledgeable, easy-going, making these long nights enjoyable. In between buzz phrases like ‘probe is moving out’, ‘do you want Shack-Hartmann with that?’, ‘AO locked!’, clouds, winds, the collapse of Internet, and software issues, we are having decent runs of good fortune, even if it meant to chase a few sucker holes. I learned that aliens are very commonly sighted in these parts of the world. Seeing an AO system in action is also something. Some of the PSFs and angular resolutions are stupendously impressive. We kept on bagging clean  red dwarf binaries at sub-0.5” separations. Sir Wilhelm Herschel would have been proud.

Which is why symphonies composed by the father of stellar binaries capture the spirit of this observing experience well:

And a cover with slides of Uranus:

(I guess by definition symphonic performances are covers)

Look forward to being back in this beautiful part of the planet!