27 October, 2012

Day 115, 492km: Very Large Telescope

Today, a visit of the European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope, Cerro Paranal, Atacama Desert!

A short drive from Antofagasta, starting in a cold fog
That fog was so cold! Starting the day with a 5 degrees C fog on the highway isn't exactly high on my wishlist but that's how it happened.

Once above the fog, the temperature became decent
So far Chile is much colder than I expected. I'm curious to see what's the weather like in the southern part of the country. It should be milder for it's not a desert, but since we're going south in the southern hemisphere, it will get colder. I refuse to look-it up in advance, that'll be a surprise.
I hope it'll be warm. I miss the sweet year-round 30 degrees C of Bangkok.

Here we are! Finally an observatory that's opened! 
Impressive view of the 4 telescopes of the distance
 The Very Large Telescope actually consists of four individual telescopes, each with a primary mirror of 8.2m (that's really big for a telescope). They can be used together and act as a virtual 200m telescope (that's enormous and doesn't exist as a single machine).

The visit there is very professional. Introduction movie, English speaking guide, great concern for satefy.
We started by a quick view of the guest facilities.

Scientists hotel at Cerro Paranal, The Residencia
 Well. That's a pretty cool place to spend a week or so doing observations in the Atacama Desert. Cinema, restaurant, 100 rooms, fitness, the list of amenities went on and on. Since I don't pay any taxes in France, I wasn't allowed to comment. Still, these guys know how to live. The place was even featured in a James Bond movie (Quantum of Solace), thanks to its amazing architecture. It is not opened for tourists of course. Even European taxpayers.

Now on to the masterpiece
 Look at this monster. To give you an idea of the scale, the blue thing at the bottom is two meters high.

Quick look at the main building's tunnels leading to the telescopes
 Next in the visit, a quick look at the main building from where the telescopes are operated. There 4 control teams, one for each telescopes, and separate teams for the instruments in use.

Apparently there are redditors at the ELT
Science!

The view that people working here have is stunning
The telescope itself. The 8.2m rests on the circular platform in the middle of the frame.
The telescope is mounted on a gimbal allowing it to change attitude. Azimuth is controlled by rotating the entire structure.

Cables, pipes, computers, big tanks, shiny things with yellow stripes ... what's not to like in this picture?
I had to
The four telescopes. See the pickup truck for scale.
Model view from above at the visitor centre
And we're building bigger! The EELT with a 30-something meters primary mirror
The ALMA under contruction near San Pedro de Atacama
That was a great visit, really well prepared by the team there. Plus we were only two English speakers so we got to have an almost private visit. And I got to ask all the questions I wanted to, which was great.

Then back on the road south with a precise destination for the day. I didn't know how long the visit would take so didn't plan on where to stop.

Back to the coast, succession of fishing villages and mining towns
So I just drove until the day was coming to an end, assuming I would find a hostel somewhere.

Julien, Laurent, this is for you guys.
And I ended up in the city of Caldera, a small harbor town.

Tried to figure out how to "unstuck" my rear brake
I'm not afraid anymore to take off the rear wheel, once you have the proper tools it's actually very easy. I tried to understand why my rear brake is stuck but couldn't get it to work properly again. I'll have to leave that to people more competent than me when I reach Santiago. Bertha will get her 30,000km service, plus a few bits and pieces that need fixing.

Now off to bed, tomorrow further south towards Valparaiso!

Cheers,
Guillaume

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