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article imageChile’s Cerro Tololo Observatory: a window to the Southern sky Special

By Igor I. Solar     Sep 7, 2010 in Science
La Serena - Chile is home to several astronomical observatories located at the foothills of the Andes Mountains in the Atacama Desert, where around 300 clear nights per year and a very stable atmosphere allow international astronomers the study of the southern sky.
Because of our planet’s spherical shape, not all the sky can be observed from one place or even from one hemisphere. Polaris, the brightest star of the Ursa Minor Constellation (Little Dipper), cannot be seen from below the equator. Similarly, the inhabitants of Europe and much of the United States, miss the sight of the Southern Cross and the stars surrounding the South Celestial Pole. Thus, to achieve a complete vision of the Universe, astronomical observatories and telescopes must be located in both hemispheres.
Chile is the base of several major international astronomic observatories. The Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA), a consortium of 37 universities and 7 affiliate institutions, operates several astronomical observatories located in Chile, Hawaii, Arizona and New Mexico. Additionally, AURA trough the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) carries out the scientific mission of the Hubble Space Telescope, the most powerful optical/ultraviolet observatory in space.
The CTIO 4-meter Blanco telescope  silhouetted against the Magellanic Clouds (at left) and the Milky...
The CTIO 4-meter Blanco telescope, silhouetted against the Magellanic Clouds (at left) and the Milky Way, as seen from Cerro Tololo in Chile. The only source of illumination is starlight.
Roger Smith/NOAO/AURA/NSF
Other requirements for observation of the stars are high elevation for unobstructed view of the sky (wide horizon), clean, dry air, free of clouds and atmospheric humidity, and absence of light pollution coming from populated centers. All these conditions are met in the proximity of the Andes Mountains in the Atacama Desert of Chile.
Two of the AURA centers are located in the southern section of the Atacama Desert, about 80 Km east of the city of La Serena and about 20 Km from the town of Vicuña. These are Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory (CTIO) and Cerro Pachón, both located at an altitude of over 2200 meters.
Cerro Tololo Observatory
My visit to the observatory at Cerro Tololo started from Vicuña, a little town of about 13 000 people located next to the Elqui River. Vicuña´s claim to fame is based mostly on two facts: as the birth place of Nobel Prize laureate (1945) poet Gabriela Mistral (1889-1957), and as a main center for the production of Chilean pisco, a liquor distilled from grapes.
Vineyards along the Elqui River in the Atacama Desert region of Chile.
Vineyards along the Elqui River in the Atacama Desert region of Chile.
The road to Cerro Tololo initially follows the Elqui River, an unimpressive brook coming from the Andes Mountains, managed well enough to support the production of grapes in the middle of the Atacama Desert. Then, a private road winds up the hills amid tree-sized cactus species towards the location of the Observatory, on a platform at the very top of Mount Tololo.
Tree-size cactus in the Southern Atacama Desert  Chile.
Tree-size cactus in the Southern Atacama Desert, Chile.
The observatory has been in operation since 1967. The main telescope at the site is known as “Blanco 4m” (4-meter mirror) named after Puerto Rican astronomer Victor M. Blanco, the second director of CTIO. Until year 2000, the start of the operation of the European Southern Observatory’s 8.1 m VLT (Very Large Telescope) of Cerro Paranal in the northern region of the Atacama Desert, Blanco 4m was the best and most powerful telescope of the Southern Hemisphere.
Telescope Blanco 4m in Cerro Tololo Astronomical Observatory  Chile.
Telescope Blanco 4m in Cerro Tololo Astronomical Observatory, Chile.
Currently, CTIO operates 4 additional telescopes of various sizes (0.61, 0.9, 1.0 and 1.5m). Additionally, the Blanco 4m works since 2003 in conjunction with the 4.1 m. telescope of the Southern Astrophysical Research Observatory (SOAR), and the Gemini South, a modern 8.1-meter-aperture optical and near-infrared telescope, both located on nearby Cerro Pachón, at 2,738 meters elevation.
Two of the telescope domes at CTIO. The domes of the telescopes at Cerro Pachón can be seen atop of...
Two of the telescope domes at CTIO. The domes of the telescopes at Cerro Pachón can be seen atop of the flat mountain in the background, closer to the dome at the right.
Telescope domes at Cerro Pachón  not far from the Cerro Tololo astronomical facilities.
Telescope domes at Cerro Pachón, not far from the Cerro Tololo astronomical facilities.
Recently, all the instrumentation at Cerro Tololo has been updated equipping them with computer control systems and digital cameras. Every year no less than 100 international and local astronomy researchers and students from 50 or more research institutions come to the CTIO to learn about astronomy by actually observing the southern skies in individual and group research projects under the direction of professional staff, and interacting with international astronomers, experts in the field.
One of the 4 smaller telescopes at Cerro Tololo Astronomical Observatory.
One of the 4 smaller telescopes at Cerro Tololo Astronomical Observatory.
AURA organizes a series of scientific and technical astronomical talks for experts from the astronomical community of northern Chile, with Internet (IP) transmission of the talks held in the AURA conference room to external sites around the world. Additionally, AURA also opens the facilities to visitors every Saturday for a three-hour guided tour of the telescopes, information on the Solar system, the Milky Way and neighbouring Galaxies, and the potential problems to astronomical science derived from climate change and light pollution.
Since 1977, Cerro Tololo was designated by the Government of Chile as a Privileged Scientific Sanctuary where mining is prohibited. The characteristics and construction techniques used in the installation and support structures of the equipment in all Chilean astronomical observatories ensure that the telescopes are not affected by earthquakes in one of the most seismically active countries in the world.
More about Chile astronomy, Cerro tololo, Cerro pachon, Atacama desert
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