Where Earth and Sea Meet the Sky and Stars: Cerro Tololo

Marveling from the Mountains

Experiencing Cerro Tololo and its nearby sister mountain Cerro Pachon is like finding the perfect vantage point from which to finally understand the towering beauty of the Earth and its place in the heavens.

Fellow ACEAP members enjoying a sunset.
Fellow ACEAP members enjoying a sunset.
When our hearty team of adventurers arrived on the mountains near the city of La Serena, Chile, we spent as much time looking down and out at the Earth during the day as looking up at the stars and planets at night.

Beyond the natural beauty surrounding us, we also marveled at the aesthetic design of the many telescopes dotting the two mountaintops.

I’ve once heard it said that telescopes are like “pimples” scarring the otherwise unblemished appearance of a mountain. As we saw here at Cerro Pachon and Cerro Tololo, that’s simply not true. They really are monuments to discovery that demonstrate human aspiration to climb to the most remote and seemingly inaccessible places to understand the true nature of the universe.

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Here the air is thin, the wind is fierce, and the landscape a raw display of the power of plate tectonics to reshape the surface of the planet. As an astronomy AND geology geek, during the day I was treated to some amazing igneous rock formations — molten intrusions from the Precambrian and Cambrian eras. Weathered and course-grain granites, partly metamorphosed from intense pressures and temperatures were abundant. I took the opportunity to create my first modest cairn. It probably won’t survive a strong gust of wind, but I enjoyed making it.

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Crowning the geology are telescopes. Lots and lots of telescopes. Some rather modest and used more for education, others — like the 4 meter Blanco telescope (named after a person not just an accurate description of its color) and the 8 meter Gemini — are engaged in frontier astronomy research.

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While visiting the CTIO facility, we spent perhaps the most time visiting the Blanco telesocpe — famed for its seminal contributions to the discovery of dark energy, that mysterious force that is accelerating the expansion of the universe (you like the Big Bang? Just hang around to the Big Rip! or the slow, quiet thermal death of the universe, whichever it happens to be).

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I was particularly impressed with the equatorial design of the telescope — having seen the 140 Foot Telescope in Green Bank (the largest telescope of that design in the world) I thought I would be a bit jaded. Not so. I still have to wonder first how the built it and second how they could possibly deliver it to this location.

The view from Gemini to SOAR.
The view from Gemini to SOAR.
It really would have been easy to stay a few more days, wake up far too early to view the stars, hike the mountainsides, take in the stunning views, and appreciate the effort that went into building both these sites, but the adventure continues. As I type this, our team is just beginning to stir here in San Pedro and we’ll begin our exploration of ALMA! My only hope is that after several days, we’re acclimated enough to handle the extreme elevations of ALMA without too much difficulty.

Clear skies…

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