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Four perfect nights in Chile

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#1 Mirzam

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Posted 15 December 2012 - 12:32 PM

During the last week my wife and I have been in Alcohuaz, Chile, a (very) small town at the end of a dirt road in the Andes mountains, about 2 hours driving time from La Serena. Several professional observatories are located in this region, which is about 7 hours driving time from Santiago. Alcohuaz is situated at 5800 feet elevation between two steep and barren ridges. The sky is wonderfully dark.

A couple years ago, we first stumbled across a small astro-tourism operation in Alcohuaz, which offers small but comfortable cabins for about $100/day. There are a number of local restaurants, including some pretty good ones. It is also possible to cook in the cabin kitchen, although local grocery offerings are pretty basic.

This time we came prepared with my 14-inch homemade travel scope, shown below without its light baffle opposite the focuser. This telescope fits into two large suitcases, with sufficient additional room for clothes, books etc. It all worked beautifully.

JimC

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#2 Dave74

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Posted 15 December 2012 - 01:00 PM

Fantastic! Love the scope.

#3 Mirzam

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Posted 15 December 2012 - 01:04 PM

I have some familiarity with the southern sky from previous trips to Chile and Brazil. With the new scope I could revisit some of the showpiece objects, as well as spend time on other objects that cannot be seen well from northern latitudes--such as the swarms of galaxies in Sculptor, Fornax and Eridanus. Here are just a few highlights:

Southern showpieces--
47 Tucanae. This globular cluster is the first object I look at when it is well-placed. It is difficult to explain why it is so beautiful. Its stars are numerous but infinitely delicate. Its core is compact but full of detail. If Omega Centauri is the King of globular clusters, then 47 Tucanae is the Queen. Needless to say this globular shows very well in a 14-inch scope.

In the Large Magellantic Cloud, is the Tarantula Nebula, a remarkably complex splash of gaseous tentacles and contrasting dark ovoid zones. The surrounding region of the LMC is full of smaller nebulae and clusters. Someone once said it is like looking into the body of a galaxy and seeing the "guts". Not the most eloquent description perhaps, but perfect nonetheless. The challenge is not to find objects but to identify which objects among hundreds one is looking at.

Much later rises the Eta Carina nebula, an enormous expanse of bright nebulosity, arranged in angular zones separated by dark, opaque gas. In the center is the Homunculus, a unique feature that looks like a tiny golden bubble attached to the bright star. Actually, there are two such bubbles (or more properly lobes) on either side of the star, but one is more pronounced. Like other southern showcase objects, one is drawn back again and again. There is just so much detail easily visible.

I had perhaps the most remarkable view of the trip just before the beginning of dawn as I waited impatiently for Omega Centauri to rise above the nearby mountain ridge. Then suddenly I saw a thousand suns rise at once! The dark spires of the ridge were backlighted by the great starry disk of Omega--a shimmering mass of stars that has no analog in our northern hemisphere skies.

JimC

#4 Mirzam

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Posted 15 December 2012 - 01:29 PM

Some other observing highlights:

I especially enjoyed views of the Fornax cluster of galaxies, which inlcudes a dozen or so bright elliptical members and an outstanding barred spiral, NGC 1365. At a declination of -36 degrees, this object does not show very well visually from my home location. In central Chile it is directly overhead. With my 14-inch scope the spiral structure was readily apparent, with one arm slightly more pronounced than the other.

Several other nice galactic objects included the Grus trio (see NGC 7542), which is quite reminiscent of the Leo triplet. NGC 1566 in Dorado showed me one fairly distinct arm (although a better observer might see two). NGC 1313 in Reticulum shows some spiral detail as does NGC 2442 in Volans.

Favorite planetary nebulae were NGC 3132, the "Eight Burst" planetary, and NGC 5189, the "Spiral" planetary. Both show good telescopic detail, although not as much as in Hubble images (google them and you will see what I mean).

JimC

#5 Mirzam

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Posted 15 December 2012 - 01:45 PM

Our last night in Alcohuaz coincided with the peak of the Geminid meteor shower. I was not sure what to expect given the somewhat unfavorable position of Geminii low in the northern sky. As it turned out we were pleasantly surprised.

Because the radiant was near the horizon we saw many "grazer" meteors. These are meteors that enter the atmosphere at relatively flat angles and thus have long slow trajectories. While northern observers probably saw greater numbers of meteors I still saw at least 40 nice grazers over a couple hours of meteor watching. Nothing like staring up at the spectacular southern milky way while under a warm blanket to finish a mighty nice astro-trip!

JimC

#6 stevew

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Posted 15 December 2012 - 02:07 PM

Excellent report.
Sounds like you had a great time.

Steve

#7 GeneT

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Posted 15 December 2012 - 04:48 PM

Congratulations! You are living my dream!

#8 george golitzin

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Posted 17 December 2012 - 12:57 AM

Wow! A 14-incher high in the Chilean Andes...man, it doesn't get a whole lot better than that! I'm particularly jealous of your views of ngc 1365, 47 Tucanae, and Eta Carina... Congratulations on a great trip.

-geo.

#9 tigerroach

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Posted 17 December 2012 - 08:21 AM

Outstanding. I would love to do an astronomy mission down there!

#10 Mirzam

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Posted 17 December 2012 - 08:31 AM

Thanks for all the comments!

Getting around in Chile is pretty easy--good roads, traffic not too crazy etc. However, it is important to be able to speak some Spanish (One of my wife's many talents).

JimC

#11 smee

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Posted 18 December 2012 - 09:00 AM

Oh the green, green dribble and drool messing up my keyboard.

#12 galexand

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Posted 21 December 2012 - 12:14 AM

A couple nights in the Atacama (San Pedro) were really instrumental in giving me my own appreciation for astronomy. I'm jealous, I wish I could go back now that I realize how lucky I was to be far from any light dome!






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