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The Night Sky at San Pedro de Atacama, Chile

Moon rise in early March in San Pedro de Atacama

Moon rise in early March in San Pedro de Atacama

Celestial Explorations in San Pedro de Atacama

This picture was taken while I was on an astrology tour through Celestial Explorations in San Pedro de Atacama, Chile. What a remarkable place and what an eye-opening tour!

We went out to a house in the middle of the desert, quite far from town, where there were no city lights visible. By 10:00 p.m. the stars in the southern hemisphere were out in full force. There are so many more stars here than in the northern hemisphere. The milky way really looks like someone splashed a huge glass of milk up into the sky and the stars shine so brilliantly they dazzle and sparkle like jewels.

Our French guide Alain Maury, and his wife Alejandra, had 6 or 7 enormous telescopes set up pointing different directions. Both spoke excellent English and gave clear easy to understand instructions. With just a bit of direction and sometimes a coloured filter added to the eyepiece viewer (so we could see gas nebulas with green gassy auroras) the sky opened up before our eyes. This is the largest public celestial observatory in Chile.

We observed first and went inside for a short, every entertaining lecture later, after the moon rose and the star watching wasn’t as good. I wasn’t in line soon enough to get a picture of any stars, but this shot was taken pointing into the eyepiece of the telescope aimed at the moonrise, and wow look at the details visible. I haven’t been able to see craters on the moon before.

I learned an surprisining amount in a short period of time about the constellations and distances from earth and for the first time truly understood the concept of ‘timespace’. We sat huddled on wooden benches inside the porch entry/lobby to their house, with blankets wrapped around our legs and hot cups of cocoa in our hands, staring up through the hole in the roof of the tarp tent covering at the stars overhead. The room was lit by one candle. People made jokes that it felt like ‘tribal council’.

Back outside, Alain revealed the mysterious constellations to us using the piercing light of a laser pointing up at individual stars. For the first time in my life I actually saw the outlines of the figures and pictures different constellations represent: Orion, the Southern Cross, the crow, the rabbit, scorpion, the twins. Alain was very smart about how he organized this tour. He didn’t lay on too much information at once. As a result I can still remember what he taught us. He made some hilarious jokes about some of the constellations not really looking like the things they are supposed to, and how to use star watching as a way to cozy up to your date. He made one guy demonstrate how to point out a star to a girl standing nearby, and his lack of romantic technique made everyone howl and Alain say how he was glad he mentioned this since instruction was obviously needed and proceeded to demonstrate the best way, sweeping an arm around the shoulder of the girl and pulling her close before pointing up in to the starry night.

Alain made a big effort to promote the hobby of star watching, and talked a lot about how you can do it at home. One of the arguments made in support of taking up the hobby of star gazing was that this is something you can pass on to your grandchildren and any children in your life, since it can’t be taught in school. Everytime they see the stars they will think of you, a wonderful lasting legacy and memories to treasure. I hadn’t thought of it that way before. He pointed out how to use star charts and where to get free ones that are good for about an hour after printing them off (e.g. www.skymaps.comor www.midnightkite.com ). All you really need is a star map specific to your area and a laser (inexpensive at just $15.00 CAD or so) to point things out to anyone else with you, so it’s easier to talk and compare.

So if you are ever in San Pedro de Atacama, it’s worth it to ferret out this tour office and book a tour through Celestial Explorations. I must have passed the office five times before I noticed it was there (the carved wooden sign doesn’t grab your attention like other tour operators splashy signs) so keep your eyes peeled on Caracoles Street.

Celestial Explorations in San Pedro de Atacama, Chile

3 comments to The Night Sky at San Pedro de Atacama, Chile

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