Coquimbo (La Sarena), Chile

Coquimbo (La Serena) Chile

Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory

March 5th, 2012

www.ctio.noao.edu

 

I was excited about this port of call (Coquimbo-La Serena). We had booked a trip to one of the largest telescopes in the world.

 

The weather on our trip has been very good. This day was no exception. We had breakfast in our cabin and I prepared my camera for our visit to Cerro Tololo Observatory.

 

We boarded our bus for the two hour ride through La Serena, the Atacama Desert and up to the observatory. Our tour guide was the best guide we had the entire trip. He was an avid star gazer and enjoyed sharing his knowledge of the stars.

 

The desert was similar to the Arizona desert. Several types of cactus grew in this area. We left the paved road and started up the gravel road to the observatory. It was on a Sunday which is not a normal day for visitors, so we had to stop and check in with the guards. As we climbed to the observatory, we were present with several panoramic views of the mountain range and the valleys below. We drove passed two goat farms. We reached the observatory at 7,200 feet above sea level.

 

The observatory grounds has five telescopes. The primary mirror sizes are 0.9, 1.0, 1.3, 1.5 and the largest at 4.0 meters respectively. The original installation was constructed from 1962 to 1967 which included a 2.2 meter, a 0.3 meter and 1.5 meter telescope. In 1976 the 4.0 meter telescope named for Victor M. Blanco was finished and at the time was the largest in the world.

 

This observatory has played a very important part in discovering the make up of the universe. It was here in 1996 that a super nova (an exploding star at the end of its life cycle) was witnessed and recorded. This event provided a vast amount of knowledge about the life cycle of a star.

 

Currently, the observatory is run by a consortium of universities and the NOAO (National Optical Astronomical Observatory group). This area of chile is home to many important observatories. These telescopes continue to explore the universe seeking answers to modern physics. The night sky here is free of light pollution (although astronomers are concerned about the amount of light pollution world wide which threatens the future science gathering capabilities of the super large telescopes) I can assure you that the “light police” are aware of this problem and continue to propose solutions that are both energy efficient and reduce light pollution. Get involved and save star gazing for our future generations. Contact me and I can inform you of solutions.

 

The Blanco 4.0 meter telescope is currently being retrofitted with the largest digital camera in the world.

 

At five tonnes and 520 megapixels, it is the biggest digital camera ever built—which is fitting, because it is designed to tackle the biggest problem in the universe. On February 20th researchers at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory, which sits 2,200 meters (7,200 feet) above sea level in the Atacama desert of northern Chile, will begin installing this behemoth on a telescope called Blanco. It is the centerpiece of the Dark Energy Survey (DES), the most ambitious attempt yet to understand a mystery as perplexing as any the faces physics: what is driving the universe to expand at an ever greater rate.

 

It has been known since the late 1920s that the universe is getting bigger. But it was thought that the expansion was slowing. When in 1998 two independent studies reached the opposite conclusion, cosmology was knocked head over heels. Since then, 5000 papers have been written to try to explain (or explain away) this result. “That’s more than one a day,” marvels Saul Perlmutter, of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, who led the Supernova Cosmology Project—one of the studies that was responsible for dropping the bombshell. Last october that work earned Dr. Perlmutter the Nobel prize for physics, which he shared with Brian Schmidt and Adam Riess, who led the other study, the High-Z Supernova Search.

 

Many of those 5000 papers deal with something that has come to be known as dark energy. One reason for its popularity is that, at one fell swoop, it explains another bug cosmological find of recent years. In the early 1990s studies of the cosmic microwave background (CMB), an all- pervading sea of microwaves which reveals what the universe looked like when it was just 380,000 years old, showed that the universe, then and now, was “flat”. However big a triangle you draw on it-the corners could be billions of light years apart—the angles in it would add up to 180º, just as they do in a school exercise book.

 

That might not surprise people whose geometrical endeavors have never gone beyond such books. But it surprised many physicists. At some scales space is not at all flat: the power of Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity lies in its interpretation of gravity in terms of curved space. Cosmologists were quite prepared for it to be curved at the grandest of scales, and intrigued to discover that it was not.1

 

(from “The Dark Side of the Universe” Cosmology February 18th, 2012 print edition.)

 

We were treated to a special tour of the 1.3 meter and the gigantic 4.0 meter Blanco telescope.

 

Since we there during the day, we were shown a video of some of the images and science which makes this observatory ( and others in Arizona and Hawaii) that are a part of the DES. The 4.0 meter mirror was being resurfaced in a huge vacuum chamber. In this chamber, the mirror is washed with a special cleaning agent which cleans the aluminum film that coats the ceramic form. The vacuum insures that no particles remain suspended after the cleaning. It will then be resurfaced with a new aluminum “skin” which reflects the light back to the sensors.”

This is a large project. When the huge digital camera in installed and the new mirror finished, it will be calibrated and tested. Tololo will then begin to gather data, along with two other large telescopes in Arizona and Hawaii. It is hoped that they will find proof of Dark Energy constant of -1.0 (or as close as they can get). This discovery will explain the seemingly contradictory theories of the expanding universe.

 

Joshua Frieman, who heads DES, hopes his team will eventually analyze over 4,000 exploding stars, some as far away as 7 billion light years. They exploded when the universe was half it’s current age and researchers no reckon, still dominated by the gravity of the matter it contained, which was putting the brakes on expansion. Dark energy, it is thought, revved things up some 5 billion years ago. A better estimate of the time at which one gave way to the other helps to determine w.

(the value scientists believe is “dark matter constant)

 

(from “The Dark Side of the Universe” Cosmology February 18th, 2012 print edition.)

 

After our in depth tour of the observatory, we said goodbye to our host and drove down the road to the valley floor. We stopped at a very nice resort called Hotel Vicuna for a late lunch.

 

A great day in the desert of Chile. On to Lima Peru…

 

1. from “The Dark Side of the Universe” Cosmology February 18th, 2012 print edition.