By nature, astronomical observatories have to be remote — far away from humans and cities and light pollution. That makes these extraordinary facilities difficult to visit, unless you’ve got Google Street View. Three of Chile’s most remote observatories are now open to the digital tourist, and we’ve found you some of the coolest views.
Very Large Telescope array at Paranal Observatory
The VLT is not just very large but also very sophisticated — one of the most advanced optical systems the world. Four main telescopes and four smaller auxiliary telescopes all feed into a “complex system of mirrors in underground tunnels” to recreate an image of the skies. Each main telescope is over 5m wide, as you can see in the photos below.
The combination of the eight telescopes and system of mirrors allows astronomers to see at such high resolution, they would be able to distinguish two car headlights on the moon.
La Silla Observatory
La Silla is one of the earliest observatories on the edge of the Atacama desert in Chile. Several world-class telescopes are housed in the observatory, far from light and humidity.
The New Technology Telescope, the tetris-shaped building in the first photo below, was the world’s first to have a computer-operated mirror in 1989. The striking telescope in the final photo is the 15m Swedish-ESO Submillimetre Telescope which was, alas, decommissioned in 2003. La Silla has been operating since the 1960s, and its campus has evolved with the history of modern astronomy.
ALMA detects not light but radiowaves that come from cold, distant galaxies at the far reaches of the universe. The array of 66 high-precision antennae pick up radiowaves from areas otherwise dark and obscure to visible light. Because water vapor in the Earth’s atmosphere interferes with radiowaves, ALMA is built on land that’s high and dry; the Atacama desert sits on a 5000m plateau.
When you see ALMA’s antennae, all tuned toward the skies waiting for an invisible signal from far away, it’s hard not to it see as a monument to something greater than us.
Pictures: ESO, Google Street View