Cerro Tololo, Chile
November 10-20, 1999
In mid-November, 1999, I got to go to Cerro Tololo Interamerican Observatory as part of an astronomical observing program. The reason for my sudden inclusion in the trip was that Chris Howk, a post-doc on the project had broken a finger pretty badly and thus couldn't safely operate the telescope. Normally in this modern age, telescopes are entirely computer controlled and can be operated by anyone. But we had time on the Curtis Schmidt telescope which must be manually pointed and requires two good hands and a good deal of strength as well. Thus I was brought in at the last minute to act as the braun to Chris's brain.
November 11, 1999
Well, after several
misadventures, Chris and I have arrived in Chile. First the flight we
were going to catch from BWI to Dallas was an hour late which would
mean we'd miss the Santiago flight. So they put us in a cab and sent
us to National in DC where we caught a flight to Miami and hence to
Santiago. But someone screwed up in there and we arrived in Santiago
(after a long cramped flight and three dinners) with 30 minutes until
our flight to La Serena. In that time I had to wait through three
customs lines, pay various entry fees, collect baggage, declare
baggage, recheck baggage, and walk about half a mile to the domestic
terminal. Hah! Truth is, we almost made it and it was still far
easier to deal with than the Lome airport.
Chris speaks decent spanish and got us onto the domestic flight an
hour later and we winged back north past some really big
mountains. I mean trully jaw-droppingly whopping mountains all full
of snow and cravasses and stuff. Wow! La Serena is hot and seems
nice. Nice cars everywhere, markets full of fish with the heads on
and people trying to sell you stuff, and a definite Spanish influence.
And everytime I try to speak some meager Spanish, French (or Russian
or Ewe) comes out. Very disconcerting. The sun is distinctly in the
north which is also disconcerting. Haven't seen the stars yet, but
I'm sure that will be extremely odd as well.
So that's that. Chris and I got settled in to our new digs (which are very
nice) at the Compound here in town. It's up on a hill and overlooks the city
(of 100,000 people) and nice harbor with rocky cliffs and islands reminiscent
of California. Lots of queer trees I can't identify. Also very large
poinsettas a la Togo. We then wandered around town looking at stuff. Some
nice old churches and quaint parks. They're in the middle of a presidential
campain here and Mr. Lagos is duking it out on the propaganda front with Mr.
A street scene in La Serena. Note the ubiquitous campaign posters.
Oh, and it turns out I'm two hours ahead of you EST people.
Chile is one time zone ahead of you, but when you guys go off Daylight
savings, we go on. Took me about 8 hours to figure that one
Anyway, we have a full day tomorrow to hang out in the city. I'm
going out armed with camera. Tonight Tito is driving us down to some
seafood place Chris knows about. Saturday morning at 8 we're boarding
the carryall for the 88km trip up the mountain which, by all reports,
is pretty hair-raising.
That's it for now. I'm overdue for a nap and a shower. Then some
Fri, 12 Nov 1999
To say that today was a leisurely day would be an overstatement. I
arose at 11:30 after an evening of conger eel and pisco (a local
liquor) at La Pica de Lupa. Tito, an amiable taxi driver took us out
there regaling us with stories all the way. Nice beachfront place
with shells and marine parts all over the walls. Beautiful city
lights across the water from Coquimbo and La Serena. Then Chris and I
retired to the lounge to watch the Chile/Peru football match which (we
think) Chile won 2-0.
After about 11 hours of sleep, I awoke at noon and wandered around a
bit. Lacking breakfast, I checked my mail, and photographed the city
from our high vantage point. At about 2 Chris awoke and by 3 we were
headed back to the beach with Chris Smith, a permanent (or at least
long term) staffer and Pete from Harvard who happened to come by. A
scrumptious crepe crocodile (which is filled with chicken and cheese)
with Chris, Pete, Lou (a grad student down here for a couple years)
and Lou's girlfriend Corrola. It seems to be a common thing for male
astronomers to move down here and aquire Chilean wives.
Unfortunately, say some female astronomers, it doesn't work the other
Chris in a courtyard at La Recova. Souvenirs were found.
Money changed hands.
Stuck my feet in the Pacific which was pacific and warm and then
headed back to town. Chris and I got out at La Recova, the central
market and walked around many of the places we were yesterday, this
time with cameras. Went by the Supermercario and picked up stuff for
dinner. We'd been invited to come to a volleyball game Lou was
playing in in preparation for the Inter-Observatory Olympics (Tololo
vs La Silla vs Las Campanas), but elected to husband our strength for
tomorrow which promisses to be very long. Also to watch Los Simpsons
at 8:30. Very interesting indeed. All the voices are voiced over
(except for musical numbers) and they even voice over prominent signs
and written stuff.
Anyway, we're getting up and getting on the carryall tomorrow morning
at 8:30 to go up the mountain. Then probably 24 hours of awakeness as
we transition to night schedule. Should be fun.
That's all the news for today. More later.
The view from my balcony. Really looks like Mars out there.
Sat, 13 Nov 1999
Wow! I wish I could describe the view up here. It's like the view
from Mt. Washington (on the few days a year it isn't cloudy) except
with cacti and much MUCH taller mountains in the background. With
snow. We had an interesting trip up. The weather in La Serena was
cool and foggy, not what you would expect for such an astronomical
mecca. We headed out in the carryall; total population seven.
The first 30 km or so was through farmland mostly dedicated to growing
papayas. Eventually, the papayas gave way to robust-looking grape
vines on rolling hills. All of a sudden, the fog cleared and we were
surrounded by these very jagged barren slopes full of tall, thin cacti
and lots of watermellon sized boulders. The road cruised along beside
the river until we passed a large dam they're building whereupon it
took to the hills and wound back and forth very entertainingly.
We reached the turnoff for Tololo and Cerro Pachon (home of the Gemini
project which they are still building). At this point, the road
became dirt and the turns sharper. Observatories stick out and Tololo
could be seen 30 km away as we wound up and around and back and forth
to finally get there.
Like I said, the views are astonishing. The dormitory and cafeteria
are down the slope perhaps a quarter mile from the domes which are all
clustered right on top. I'm in room 4 and Chris in room 5. I have
car #288 and he gets #299. That's right, they give us these sporty
little cars to drive around up here. It doesn't seem all that
necessary, but what the heck.
After a brunch of marmalade, steak and bread, we went to our
separate tasks. Chris is now asleep but I am too keyed up to do the
wise thing. We're going to be trained in using the telescope (which I
am now sitting downstairs from) at 2 so I have some time to kill. I
want to take lots of pictures right away, but I know the lighting will
improve when the sun is lower. Plus I'll be here for five more days.
|Me with my trusty Toyota #288||The ubiquitous desert fox.|
morning fog would roll in to the lower vallies to the west. You could
also often see the shadow of the earth (dark band in the sky) and the
Belt of Venus (pink band above the shadow; backscattered
Sun, 14 Nov 1999 (After Night 1)
now I'm tired.
Chris and I with our intrepid telescope.
We just completed our first night and it was quite a chore. Sure,
we're only taking 5 minute exposures, but there are a lot of them.
Nice night, warm and very clear. The Magellanic Clouds are just that.
They look like clouds. Orion was upside down which wasn't as weird as
it could have been. Mostly I was running up and down the stairs
hauling the telescope around. The scope itself is probably 20' long
and about 5' in diameter. The way you move it is to grab the rail on
the butt end and release the clutch. Then, depending on your strength
to weight ratio and ability to anticipate inertia, either the
telescope is moved into position or you end up dangling by your
fingertips five feet off the floor. Minor adjustments can be made
from downstairs, so I only had to go move things every hour or so.
Chris did the bulk of the work and I sat around being bored.
Some exciting events of the evening were refilling the dewer with
liquid nitrogen, having Edguardo (one of the techs who taught us the
ropes) burst in every two hours with "HOLA CABALLEROS!", and having an
airplane fly directly over one of our images. There were two parallel,
and very bright trails and a fainter trail from the nose light. Right
in the middle of the frame is where the plane's strobe went off giving
us a very bright star and symetrical reflections off the aft engines.
Now we're taking sky flats and getting ready to close up shop. Venus
is extremely bright in the east and birds are chirping. I am ravenous
and looking forward to breakfast. Amy, you wouldn't like it here as
there is nothing without meat. Even the rice has shrimp (camarones)
Hard at work at the telescope.
After dinner last night, I saw a fox. Lots of interesting cacti and
small birds that come out near sunset presumably when it cools off.
Although it's pretty cool most of the time. Shirtsleeve weather. Not
what you expect for 7000' up a mountain in the middle of the night in
the middle of November.
And now it's time for breakfast and bed. In that order. See you
Mon, 15 Nov 1999 (Night 3)
Well, we seem to have developed a routine here. Here we are on our
third night and everything is running smoothly. On the first night we
took about three hours focussing and aligning and doing non-science
observations. Tonight it was about half an hour. Most of the bugs
are out of the system. And the program is going pretty well. I point
the telescope by hand, Chris takes the pictures and processes them the
first part of the way. Then I take over and coadd them and do a bit
more work. All the processing could easily be done later, but we have
time now and the telescope is never wanting for attention.
Let's see, what has happened.... Took a walk after the first night
and it was a great success. Thus, this afternoon (that is, after the
second night) I got up at 1 pm, ate "breakfast" of roast chicken, and
headed out with the aim to hike out this promentory visible below the
main peak. I took a radio with me in case I got lost or hurt on the
suggestion of several people.
Several telescopes at CTIO at sunset. From left to right we
have the 16", 1.2m radio telescope, the Swarthmore telescope, the Yale
1 meter and the Curtis-Schmidt.
Distances and vertical relief are
very hard to judge here in this desert terrain. There are no trees the
height of which allows me to judge distance. Just lots of bushes and
rocks which come in all sizes. Plus, in the middle of the day,
everything is colorfully washed out and appears fuzzy and flat. It's
only with the long shadows that the steepness of things becomes
apparent. Anyway, with water, snacks, and radio, I set out and
climbed down the slope. No real trails, but vegetation is sparse
enough you can set your own course. Sort of like hiking around up on
Mt. Washington in many ways. You can see where you're going and where
you came from for hours. Hence everything looks close and it seems to
take forever to get anywhere.
Well, like I said, things were very steep and full of loose dirt and
skittery little flat stones. Plus desert vegetation tends to be
pretty prickly so I was soon moderately scratched about the lower
portions. I followed a pipe down the mountain until I discovered that
what I had thought was a smooth shoulder was separated from the main
bulk of the mountain by about a 20' cliff and a steep notch.
Eventually, I made my way up the secondary peak which probably has a
name, but not on the meager maps I've been able to find, and looked
around. Level with big brown rocks and these nifty 5-gallon cacti
shaped like slightly prolate spheres. A nice deep green with two-inch
long thorns pointing in all directions. Some were in bloom with big
The impressive thing was the
silence and peacefulness of the scene. Occasional buzzing insects and
a faint breeze, but nothing else. All the birds and animals were
likely hiding out the heat of the day. Lots of color, too.
Interesting red and yellow flowers and some delicate purple blooms as
well. And the views were, of course, astonishing. Cerro Morado and
Cinchado (named becasue it has a belt of white cliffs around it's
midsection) were imediately visible. Today must have been clearer
than other days because behind the 3000-meter range was a higher,
toothier range with snow. I've been able to identify a few mountains
around and I think everyone is getting tired of me constantly
pestering them about it.
|Some desert vegetation. If anyone knows the names of
these plants, please drop me a note.|
Coming back was interesting. I discovered that steep climbing at 2000
meters is tough on the lungs and I didn't put up any kind of
record-setting pace. Also took a spill when a large rock rolled under
me and scraped up my hand pretty badly. I made my way back up by a
different route and hit the showers.
Socially, things around here revolve around dinner. The Spanish
speakers occupy one table, the English speakers the large one by the
window and the telescope operators another up by the drink machine.
I've met a number of interesting folks from Malcom Smith, the director
of this place to Eric, Julie, Lou, Nick and Mike; other observers.
Quite a sense of camraderie has developed. We talk about geeky things
like how the seeing is and whether our instruments are behaving.
Probably similar to scientific outposts anywhere.
The food is what Malcom describes as "Chilean housewife cookery" and
seems to consist predominantly of meat (tonight was steaks deepfried
in something) with occasional veggies (cooked, but cold) and
occasionally rice or pasta. Desert is usually some sort of very fancy
jello or flan. It's pretty good, but I've eaten more meat on this
trip than I have in several months at home. By the way, apparently
other South American countries eat even more meat Argentina and Brazil
being the worst. Vegetarianism has not caught up here yet.
Thu Nov 18 04:26:26 (Night 5)
Well, the meteors are definitely doing their thing down here. It's
fairly cold and the moon is finally down. I'm outside taking pictures
and inside finishing up the observing program. We've gotten quite a
number of satellites/meteors in our images today. Probably meteors as
they are so numerous. Saw one go right through the place my camera
was aimed with the shutter open that was two parrallel trails.
Possibly it split in half earlier. Should be good photos.
Well, I took 16 photos some of which ought to come out. The night has
ended. We got lots of great images tonight including the Orion Nebula
in three colors. I smell a three color image coming on! I also
whacked my head on the counterweight which, while being padded, is
very stationary and now my neck hurts. Also tripped over the walkway
and whacked my beleaguered camera into the ground. Chris is busy
writing tapes and I am cleaning up the stuff. Should go up and put
the telescope to bed (fill with liquid nitrogen, cover all lenses, aim
straight up, close dome, turn off lights and close the 'midget
We leave today at 2:30 on the carry-all for La Serena. We have
planned a celebratory dinner at Donde el Guaton ('where the fat guy is')
and then lots of sleep. We leave La Serena again tomorrow evening and
I'll be back in B'more by noon on Saturday.
It's been a great trip, but it's time to go home. And sleep on a
normal schedule. And in great excess as well.