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Chile Dilly!


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Image courtesy of Chilescope.com

 

Recently I was browsing an online astronomy journal when I came across an advertisement for a remote imaging site in Chile: Chilescope.com.  It was an attractive home page and of course being an avid astroimager I know about Chile, arguably the hottest property right now and home to all the latest and greatest ground based telescopes in the world. The Atacama Desert, driest place on Earth, could be the best observing site without actually being in outer space! Now I already own and operate a remote observatory in Mayhill NM, the birthplace of remote imaging so why would I be interested in anything else? Probably the main interest lies in the fact that I cannot observe the southern hemisphere’s sky from here! The fact that it is Chile adds a certain mystique to the whole picture. I decided to look into it further. The observing site is located in a remote part of Northern Chile. The nearest town is Ovalle, Chile which really isn’t that close to the Atacama region. It’s actually a good 700km to the south. While “X” marks the approximate location of Chilescope, the Atacama region is about 3 times the distance to the “Chile” label on this Google map, north.:

 

 

Ok, so it’s not right across the way from the ALMA complex (Atacama Large Millimeter Array). However, I discovered it still lies in an area in the North where the weather is superb and the climate is still quite dry. The site sits at a modest elevation of 5000 feet so quite a bit lower than anything in the Atacama region.

 

Image courtesy of Chilescope.com

Ivan Rubtsov and Sergey Pogrebisskiy (pictured above) are the 2 cofounders of Chilescope project. The project was started in 2013 in partnership with the University of Santiago. The details of the development and construction of the site are well documented on the website: Chilescope.com. A group of observatories were built, 3 of which have been made available to astronomers for remote imaging. Two of them house identical telescopes and equipment, consisting of extremely fast (F3.6) ASA 20” Newtonians with direct drive mounts and FLI 16803 cameras.

Image courtesy of Chilescope.com

A third observatory houses a 1 meter RC scope. The site is directed toward amateur astronomers but also caters to professionals who are looking for quality telescope time. I am not generally familiar with “pay for play” telescope rental sites except for perhaps itelescope, which has, in my opinion, a very complex user interface and payment structure. This by contrast is extremely clean and simple. The cost for use of one of the Newtonians is 60 dollars per hour which is quite a bit cheaper than what I have seen for other sites. The 1 meter instrument will cost $200 per hour. They provide the usual “Moon discounts” for imaging in moonlit skies. They also credit observers for mechanical problems and even bad frames. My estimate was that you could conceivably do a decent tricolor image project with one of the Newtonians, with the fast optics and discounts for perhaps around $400 or so.  I then looked at the calendar of availability expecting a long wait time but was surprised to see that I could start observing the next day! Of course the next thing to inspect was the images that were obtained by users. These were absolutely tremendous APOD quality images all the way! I was sold! A chance to image the famous Centaurus A galaxy and other renowned southern hemisphere gems! Luckily I had just sold some astroimaging equipment so I had some discretionary funds to test this out. My first target was of course Centaurus A! Payment is through PayPal either from your own account or via credit card. You have to register of course first and then your payment shows up as “chilescope points” where 1 point equals 1 US dollar.

Images courtesy of chilescope.com

 

The user interface is very simple and they walk you through everything. The weather is recorded here as “unsuitable” but that is because it is during the day. You set up your times based on calendar availability. You have to check with your favorite planetarium program when your object will be visible. I use Stellarium, a free application, which actually has Ovalle, Chile in their database!  They do not image below 30 degrees so if your set up times are problematic either because of object visibility or conflicts with sunset or sunrise you will get an error message. Also of note is the late sunset time, around 9 oclock or so at the time of this review. It is Fall down there now and they do not observe Daylight Savings! Currently you can easily image for 4-5 hours. They do reserve about 2 hours or so for non imaging functions. All of these details are explained both on the site and in a downloadable PDF . If you have any experience at all with astroimaging, the set up page is a snap. You enter the RA and Dec coordinates of your target, enter the number of subs you want to take, filter, binning, exposure time, how often you want to focus and even dithering. That’s it! When your session starts you get an email with a link to the session log which you can follow. At the end of your session your files are available for download. You can also download your bias, darks and flats at any time for free. They update their flats every week and darks every 2 weeks.

And now the results! This is a single 20 minute raw luminance image at 1:9 scale. The image analysis below shows the average FWHM is about 2.3 with this image scale (1 arc sec per pixel)  which is close to the lowest resolution I have seen here:

They tell you that their system is optimized for 20 minute exposures so that’s what I chose. On my first session there was a technical glitch and seeing was not good that night so I did get a 30% refund based on the number of frames I lost and/or had to throw out. Their customer service is outstanding. Emails regarding any issues are handled anywhere from within 1 hour to maybe a few hours but always resolved before the next imaging session. I checked all of my images in Pixinsight and my conclusion was that resolution in general was outstanding. On the best nights it was typical to obtain single 20 minute subs with an average FWHM in the 1 arc sec range. Less than great seeing was in the low 2’s. As mentioned the system is very fast and as a result is perhaps undersampling a bit with only a 1 arc sec per pixel image scale. The focal length of 1900mm at F/3.6 demands precision focusing as the critical focus zone is a mere 20-30 or so microns! Consistent perfection in star quality edge to edge is probably not realistic given this type of optical set up with the need both for absolutely perfect focusing with a minimal error margin, and field correction for an f 3.6, 20 inch Newtonian! As a result about 1/5 of the images I obtained had oval appearing stars in the very corners of the field at full resolution but I actually only had to discard a few that were frankly bad. The rest were acceptable to where I felt after processing would not be noticeable. The corrected field is 50mm so it is quite large considering the size of the optics! The other problem that came up was occasional failed plate solving which caused shifting of the target off center. These frames were credited back to me no questions asked. I was actually relieved to see that I am not the only remote observatory operator that has issues to deal with! The one variable there which seems to cause no trouble at all is the weather. During my 2 week imaging project, I did not see a single cloud on their all sky cam!

Image courtesy of chilescope.com

 

In conclusion I would highly recommend this site for anyone who wants to image targets that can only be seen or optimally seen in the Southern Hemisphere. The cost is not prohibitive and the fast optical system makes it possible to obtain enough quality data in a reasonable time frame. The seeing at this site in Chile is excellent, and the resolution and image quality obtained make it well worth the expense, not to mention the excitement of seeing these amazing objects which we cannot see from Northern lattitudes! The user interface is very simple and customer service is superb. While you will have to throw out some subs like we all do at times, these will not come at additional cost. Best of all…they add 20% to your initial deposit if you are a CN member!

Chile Dilly!

 

Dave Doctor

Astrodoc71


  • RandallK likes this


16 Comments

Been there, done that! This private site is called  "El Sauce," (The Willow). Besides the Russian telescope site, there are many more privately owned scopes. There is one large & one medium roll-off roof observatory. There are 3 smaller roll tops. There is a huge solar cell bank. One of the techs stated that WIFI/internet service can be spotty due to a sole internet provider. Cost to set up your own scope is 5,000 € plus 5,000€ yearly fee. Your equipment will be heavily taxed upon entry into Chile -- as much as 60 percent! The Russian side is protected by a very tough steel fence with electrified wires and security cameras. I think this has to be a Russian government site to track Western satellites. It is just that imposing and had to have cost at least 4 million Euros. Two scopes are owned by 5 French astronomers. Their site is www.cielaustral.com, only in French, but with great photos of the entire site. Sam Berrada and I were invited by the French to visit their site. Access to the site is via a very rough mountain road. It takes 1.25 hours to travel 30km. See my report of my 3/17 & 3/18 Chile trips under "DIY stargazing trip to Chile."

Thanks for posting this - most interesting.

V/R

Rick

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Alain Maury
May 06 2018 12:37 AM

"The nearest town is Ovalle, Chile which really isn’t that close to the Atacama region. It’s actually a good 700km to the south" Let's say it's about 20 miles away, not 700km... Santiago is even closer than that... See: https://www.google.c...-71.0894871,10z

Then to comment on the first comment (John Akai) where have you seen 60% ? It's about 19% taxes, plus 6% custom taxes, plus if your equipment is declared above 1000 US$ the fee of the custom agent. Plus various other fees (storage, etc...). Then the importation company, if it's a business can recover the custom taxes, in the end you pay in the worst case about 15% of the price (if the importing business is honest and does not charge you the money they recover the following month). Then instead of sending brand new equipment you can send "used equipment" and not declare the "new" value, if your setup has been used before. Then the small and costly stuff (CCD camera, etc...) you can bring in your own suitcase when you install your equipment, etc... I have imported many telescopes to Chile, and there is no way you pay 60% taxes. Then don't "think" chilescope is a russian military equipment, unless you are able to prove it. I am not related to them in any way, just that it's not good to create urban legends without any proof.

    • leviathan likes this

Alain, About the 60%, I learned that incredible rate from Pedro, an astronomer at Hacienda los Andes. He should know, since he helped the late Daniel Versatche (owner of HLA) set up the equipment. Yes, I too could not believe the rate!...Russian site: Urban legend, probably, my bad. I've only had the same strange feeling on July 2001, while visiting the NYC Twin Towers. I was in the US Air Force and know uber high security when I see it. You have to see it in person to comprehend the enormity of the installation. After getting out of our 4x4, and staring at the site, Sam and I just stared and said "WoW!"

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Alain Maury
May 07 2018 12:41 AM

I can send you privately the bills for some of the telescopes I imported, and I have imported more than 20 in my telescope farm, and it's never 60%. In Argentina and Brazil, yes, they have crazy tax rates.

For the "security", the site is not guarded, and you are in Chile... So even that I am not sure it will not stop burglars. There are countries where you can leave your camera on top of your car, while you go shopping and you still find your camera when you come back 10 minutes later (Japan, Iceland...). In Chile, you come back and your camera and your car are gone :).

It's a broader subject than Chile, but that has always been my worry with untended equipment as in many remote observatories. Walls, fences and locks slow people down. But if no one is there, the would be burglars have all the time in the world. You need people, or at least cameras monitored by someone capable of quick response. 

 

Alain, I have to admit, I wondered about this with your scopes. Do you have someone on the property when you travel (reading that, I realize it probably isn't a good question to ask publicly so feel free to disregard; should've asked when I was there.)

It seems university technicians rotate in-and-out every few weeks. I met Vincent, Universidad Catolica, at Hacienda los Andes. He had worked for several days at the very spartan site, and was taking a couple of days off at HLA prior to returning to Santiago. He told me a second mid-size roll-top is planned. The French astronomers only go once per year. Phillipe told me the French team was not coming back next year. Pepe said maybe in 2020. So, the site is largely unguarded. However, the rough road literally goes right through the driveway of two tiny homesteads. These people would be able to ID any vehicle driving through.

Thanks all for commenting and correcting my geographical error! Not sure what happened there. I believe I googled the distance from Ovalle to Atacama Desert and the response was 700km. Did not check the actual named observatory locations. My apologies.

Dave

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Alain Maury
May 09 2018 02:10 PM

Just to clarify yes, there is a guard living in the observatory, like I do. I normally work on the telescopes at night, and there are workers during the day. It can happen that the guard takes vacations, but when I take vacations somebody is there to replace me, if only to take care of the lodges. We also have a few cameras at various points of the observatory. In 15 years never had any problems (crossing fingers). Then, burglars are usually interested in what can be resold, and telescopes are not exactly easy to sell in Chile. I assume if they would come to my place they would be more interested in my TV and stereo equipment, than Ritchey Chrétien telescope and CCD cameras ? So no need for high electrified fences. But in a lonely place, I agree, it's better to have (not that it's going to stop somebody coming with the right equipment). Even if you don't work for the empire :).

Thanks for the explanation.

 

Just to be clear, I don't think the vulnerability of equipment sitting out by itself is confined to Chile. I heard lots of warnings about theft in Chile and, while I saw some evidence of it, I never fell victim and it wasn't anything like as bad as I had heard stories. Still, I would worry about valuable equipment left alone anywhere in the world. I would think the main target of such an observatory would be the computers and electronics, which a remote observatory must have. 

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proximachali
May 10 2018 12:36 PM

I can send you privately the bills for some of the telescopes I imported, and I have imported more than 20 in my telescope farm, and it's never 60%. In Argentina and Brazil, yes, they have crazy tax rates.

For the "security", the site is not guarded, and you are in Chile... So even that I am not sure it will not stop burglars. There are countries where you can leave your camera on top of your car, while you go shopping and you still find your camera when you come back 10 minutes later (Japan, Iceland...). In Chile, you come back and your camera and your car are gone smile.gif.

Hi, I'm Chilean and I have a remote observatory installed in El Sauce since September of last year. I can tell you from my personal experience that the heavens are world class, with measurements of seeing in situ in the order of 1 arcsec. In parallel  the hosting service is also first level.

 

The equipment installed there consist in OOUK AG12 newtonian astrograph, STL11K camera all mounted on Astro-Physics 1100 GTO GEM, along with all the proper astrophotography equipment (pc, keys, electronics.......etc)

Here you can see the instalation of the ROR :

 

http://www.astro-aus...DSC_5148(1).JPG

 

Regarding security, the support team is for much of the week in the observatory and on the only rural road that leads to the top of the mountain, you will have to pass through the two houses of the guards. These are families of small farmers also hired as permanent guards of the place.

Along with granting security to the site, they make the best goat cheese I've eaten :>)

 

__________________________________

José Joaquín Pérez

www.astro-austral.cl

Rancagua-Chile

    • roustabout, bunyon and BinoGuy like this

"steel fence with electrified wires and security cameras"))))

Don't forget about 4 rapid-fire machine guns in the corners))

Sergey Pogrebisskiy

KGB major

Alain, nice to meet you here! How are things going in San Pedro? Still remember nice pisco we had together in your place))

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Alain Maury
May 11 2018 01:17 PM

Hola Sergey,

"Don't forget about 4 rapid-fire machine guns in the corners)) "  :)

That's how it has to be done. :)

Life is fine in San Pedro. Your telescope is used by the polish observer for asteroids (they are MPC code W98, discovered a comet just after installation, missed another one last year, and keep producing a lot of measurements).

Alain

Jose, Sweet website! Thanks for the great photos. With all that great equipment, you can't be married! Are you? =) I miss Coquimbo BIG TIME. Sadly, I won't be back. =( But I have great memories. ;-) This winter I am retiring to Guadalajara, Mexico. I am trading KGB for Narcos & Mega LP -- scary! ÷○ Gotta sell a lot of glass! I am enjoying all the banter.

I used the Chilescope  .5 meter scope a few times but I found the quality  of the calibration flats very poor making cropping of the images necessary. The data was good but with severe vignetting that would not calibrate out.



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