Chile Diary 4: ALMA… and Ceres?
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Our last stop on the Chile trip was San Pedro de Atacama, a hiker's paradise that now serves as the headquarters for the APEX microwave telescope (a friend of mine was using it while we were there) and the ALMA microwave radio telescope array, located at 16,400 feet (5,000 meters). It's so high up that you have to be examined by a doctor before they let you visit. Everyone in our group passed the test... except me. (I was on antibiotics, fighting a sinus infection I'd picked up in Denver.)

As I result, I don't have first-hand descriptions... but these are some of the photos that Katie took and shared with us:

The gang at ALMA... except for me!

The gang at ALMA... except for me!

The guys who made our ALMA trip possible, Fernando Comeron (ESO representative to Chile) and  Pierre Cox, ALMA director

The guys who made our ALMA trip possible, Fernando Comeron (ESO representative to Chile) and Pierre Cox, ALMA director

Katie's view of the ALMA telescopes. Yes, that's snow

Katie's view of the ALMA telescopes. Yes, that's snow

But along with the telescopes, we also got to visit a couple of the remarkable sites near San Pedro... the El Tatio hot springs and geysers (best seen at sunrise, which meant an early start for us) and the "Valley of the Moon", a remarkable collection of mountains and valleys carved by wind and water.

And that's where Ceres comes in. As you may recall (see Bob's posts) the Dawn spacecraft is orbiting Ceres, getting closer and closer to the mysterious white spots seen on its surface. One theory has it that they are patches of ice left by geysers on the surface of Ceres. Well, here are some geysers at 14,000 feet in the dry desert of Chile:

Hot springs

But an equally possible theory is that the white spots are salt deposits left behind after the water evaporated into space. And that's where the "Valley of the Moon" comes in.

As you may have heard, this desert only gets rain about once in a hundred years; but one of those times was just this past spring. And the rocks here are full of salts like gypsum, or even regular rock salt (NaCl as halite). They were the site of salt mines as recently as the 1960s. And with all that rain, a lot of salt got dissolved into the water... and then left behind as the water evaporated. So, for the moment, this valley has a remarkable white patina:

A panorama of the "Valley of the Moon" outside San Pedro, near the ALMA site, in the Atacama desert of Chile

A panorama of the "Valley of the Moon" outside San Pedro, near the ALMA site, in the Atacama desert of Chile

Inspecting a salt mine

Inspecting a salt mine

So maybe they should rename it, The Valley of Ceres?

Br. Guy Consolmagno

About Br. Guy Consolmagno

Brother Guy Consolmagno SJ is Director of the the Vatican Observatory and President of the Vatican Observatory Foundation. A native of Detroit, Michigan, he earned undergraduate and masters' degrees from MIT, and a Ph. D. in Planetary Science from the University of Arizona; he was a postdoctoral research fellow at Harvard and MIT, served in the US Peace Corps (Kenya), and taught university physics at Lafayette College before entering the Jesuits in 1989.

At the Vatican Observatory since 1993, his research explores connections between meteorites, asteroids, and the evolution of small solar system bodies, observing Kuiper Belt comets with the Vatican's 1.8 meter telescope in Arizona, and applying his measure of meteorite physical properties to understanding asteroid origins and structure. Along with more than 200 scientific publications, he is the author of a number of popular books including Turn Left at Orion (with Dan Davis), and most recently Would You Baptize an Extraterrestial? (with Father Paul Mueller, SJ). He also has hosted science programs for BBC Radio 4, been interviewed in numerous documentary films, appeared on The Colbert Report, and for more than ten years he has written a monthly science column for the British Catholic magazine, The Tablet.

Dr. Consolmagno's work has taken him to every continent on Earth; for example, in 1996 he spent six weeks collecting meteorites with a NASA team on the blue ice regions of East Antarctica. He has served on the governing boards of the Meteoritical Society; the American Astronomical Society Division for Planetary Sciences (of which he was chair in 2006-2007); and IAU Commission 16 (Planets and Satellites). In 2000, the small bodies nomenclature committee of the IAU named an asteroid, 4597 Consolmagno, in recognition of his work. In 2014 he received the Carl Sagan Medal from the American Astronomical Society Division for Planetary Sciences for excellence in public communication in planetary sciences.

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