Chile Diary 1: La Silla Observatory, Chile
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For the past two weeks, I have been in Chile with a group sponsored by the Vatican Observatory Foundation to tour a number of the ESO (and other) astronomical observatories. The whole trip was made possible by the help of Dr. Fernando Comerón, the ESO representative in Chile (he has ambassador's status!) who set up the whole tour and got us places to stay in the observatories themselves.

There were three major observatory stops along the way... the first was La Silla, which is located a few hours outside of the Chilean city of La Serena, which is also near the American observatory of Cerro Tololo. Both La Silla and Cerro Tololo were developed in the 1960s, about the same time as Kitt Peak, and they have a very familiar feel to them... the telescopes are also mostly from the 1960's to the 1990s. The site was chosen to be both clear and dark, yet still convenient accessible at that time. Later telescopes were built in sites that are even darker and more remote, as accessibility developed over the past 50 years.

Here are some photos from our group, to give you an idea of what those wonderful telescopes look like. Even though some of them are nearly 50 years old, they're still heavily used. The 3.6 meter telescope, for example, is the home to the HARPS spectrometer that is used full time to discover and characterize exoplanets – planets around other stars, a discovery that was far in the future when that telescope was first built.

 

3 at 2.2 meter

Conrad, Karen, and Ken at the 2.2 meter telescope. In the cafeteria of the observatory dorm where we were staying, I ran into my friend Colin from the UK, who was using this telescope to observe Kuiper Belt Objects that night.

 

The telescope domes at La Silla, as the sun sets

The telescope domes at La Silla, as the sun sets

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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