“This is the best place to be, really!” Ruiz sounds like the proud owner of a particularly convenient lot that he has carefully selected to settle down. “On the one hand we live at the edge of Milky Way, our own galaxy - thus we can see large parts of Milky Way, but we also have a good view out towards the other galaxies!” he explains the earth’s perfect position to us.
We are in the Northern Chilean desert. The area from around Vicuna towards the enormous Atacama Desert sees 340 clear nights per year, and hundreds of astronomical institutes have set up observatories. The largest of them take decades to build, and their telescopes are several meters long. Astronomers from all over the world must make reservations one year in advance and pay a fee of 10 000 USD to use them for one night. For Chile, the investment is so dear that laws are being changed in order to reduce light pollution caused by streetlights and neon advertisements. When Vicuna voluntarily introduced a low-level lighting system several years ago, American researchers rewarded the town with the purpose-built Mamalluca Observatory for tourists. Thus, instead of bothering astronomers at their expensive work place, we can now take a guided tour around the observatory on a hill outside Vicuna.
The observatory is pitch-dark except for a guidance-system with dimmed coloured lights along the pathways and the sky above us is sprinkled with stars. Ruiz points out a few familiar constellations – Orion is visible from all over the world, we learn. “But you will never see the Little Dipper constellation in the Southern hemisphere.” We also see the famous Southern Cross, which captains used to navigate the oceans for centuries.
Milky Way forms a thick white band above our heads, with two whitish blurs below. “These are the Magellanic Clouds: other galaxies not far from ours, and the only ones we can see with the naked eye,” Ruiz explains. “Magellan discovered and named them during his voyage in 1519-22, but of course he did not know what they are. Ruiz, of whom we only see the blinking dark button eyes, has been a keen hobby astronomer since his early youth. With his soft voice he develops a scenario of creatures living 2000 light-years away. Using very strong telescopes, he elaborates, they could just now observe Jesus growing up.
“No – it’s a sticker!,” a woman with a strong British accent and a hoarse voice exclaims in the dark upper story of the observatory. Some other people jostle around the huge telescope, emitting appreciative murmurs. The telescope has an electronic positioning system, and from where we stood we had seen Ruiz enter long letter-number combinations for several stars and star clusters he had shown us before. Only a few hundred of the known stars and planets have names, the others are identified by a numbering system. The last position Ruiz entered had been easy: “SATURN.” And indeed, the small marbled ball we see has a clearly visible hula hoop ring around its corpulent waist.
We take another one of the numerous star observation tours offered in the area. Our guide Jorge focuses on the Andean cosmology. The indigenous peoples of the Andes had quite a different concept of the night sky, we hear. The Incas, for example, used for their orientation star constellations consisting of the dark areas without visible stars within Milky Way. And indeed there is a head with a blinking star-eye, and the dark guanaco (a lama variety) we now come to see does have four legs. Unfortunately the rest of the talk turns into a diffuse mix of esoteric stories and theses without obvious links to the Andean cosmology, and we are glad when it is over.
A few days later we stare at Saturn through a much smaller telescope and need a lot of imagination to see the rings. The telescope is part of the furniture in our “Astrodome”, a modern dome tent construction. The sleeping area just below the dome has a fold-away ceiling and we lie in bed watching the shooting stars fall through the firmament. By now we have had enough practice to be fast with our wishes.