ESO telescopes.

Clear Nights in the Atacama

Who would want to come here, where nothing can survive for long without water trucked in from afar? Astronomers, that’s who.

Very Large Telescope (VLT)

The Atacama Desert in northern Chile is the driest place on Earth — so dry that parts of it have received no recorded rainfall for decades. When you drive across it, you are surrounded by absolute desolation — like Mars without the peach-coloured sky.

In parts, the terrain is sandy with windswept dunes, but by far the majority is gravelly with baseball- to doghouse-sized boulders randomly arrayed as far as the eye can see.

Professional research astronomers staked out the place as an astronomical nirvana on Earth back in the 1960s, when a few observatories built at the southern end of the Atacama revealed remarkably clear and steady air night after night. More observatories were constructed, and in 1998, the biggest of them all was completed on Cerro Paranal, in the middle of the Atacama, at 8,600 feet above sea level.

ESO telescopes.

Known somewhat prosaically as the VLT (Very Large Telescope), the facility boasts four 8.2-metre telescopes as well as several smaller ones. The place is awesome. The mountaintop was shaved and shaped to accommodate the numerous telescopes. At the same time, a vast cavern was carved out of the mountainside for the hotel-like sleeping quarters for visiting astronomers, technicians and other staff. At any one time, about 135 people live here. The whole place gives the feeling of a James Bond movie set. Indeed, part of the recent James Bond film, Quantum of Solace, was filmed there.

But the best part was the opportunity (rarely offered, I’m told) to photograph the observatories from outside at night. Conditions were perfect: moderate winds, cool, but not frigid temperatures. I shot the accompanying 50-second exposure with a filter-modified Canon 50D fitted with an 8mm superwide fish-eye lens. The brilliant southern Milky Way looks down on the colossal, cylindrical “domes” now commonly used to house modern research observatories.

Although research astronomers have been coming to the Atacama for at least half a century, amateur astronomers are a relative rarity here. It’s not so much the distance, but the lack of astronomy-friendly facilities once you get here. That’s beginning to change, as I found out by staying at the Atacama Lodge (, a new astronomy lodge established in 2007 specifically for amateur astronomers who want to experience the best skies in the world at a fully equipped site with motel-like accommodation, telescopes for rent, red-lights-only at night and excellent restaurants and other tourist facilities just ten minutes away in San Pedro de Atacama, the premier tourist destination in northern Chile.

I’ve visited the Atacama twice and have always been impressed by the seemingly endless string of clear neights I’ve enjoyed, filled with views of the magnificent southern-hemisphere skies: the Magellanic Clouds (the two nearest galaxies), the Carina Nebula (bigger and brighter than the Orion Nebula), Omega Centauri (biggest and brightest globular cluster)… the list goes on.

Get a Free Digital Issue