The sun was setting on my arrival; it was still too early to see all the planets and stars. Our guide suggested to take a look at the moon. One by one we moved behind the telescope and admired a half-full moon. It felt so close that if I reached out my hand, I could actually touch it. Especially the craters were clearly visible, among which the Sea of Tranquility, where the Americans planted their flag during the first landing on the moon.
West of the moon, the planet Venus was clearly visible. Farther west were Jupiter and Mercury, situated above each other. Both disappeared quickly behind the horizon. Of course it is the earth that is turning, but from where we stood, looking through the telescope, it felt as if it was the universe that was turning, from west to east.
Stargazing in Chile
In the southern hemisphere, Chile offers the best opportunities to study star constellations. Especially north Chile has the advantage of a clear atmosphere. This, combined with a stable climate and few cities – thus no interference of light –, makes Region II, III and IV a heaven for astronomers.
The majority of Chile’s observatories is for scientific purposes only, but at Cerro Mamalluca visitors can enjoy this spectacle as well. Cerro Mamalluca lies in the Elquí Valley of Norte Chico, in Region IV.
In Your Bucket Because…
- You love watching the stars, and want to learn more about them.
- You are in Chile, and this is one of the best places to check out the universe through a telescope.
- Good for anybody interested in the universe. Fun to do with kids as well.
Checking out the Universe
I signed up for a two-hour guided tour, which is given in small groups. Guides speak Spanish and/or English. During my exploration of the universe, our guide Luis pointed out galaxies, explained legends and myths around the constellations, and showed us how to find the south by following the Southern Cross.
One of the things we learned was that what we, in the Northern Hemisphere, know as Orion’s Belt, here is referred to as Tres Marías, which according to Luis is the Catholic name for the constellation. It symbolizes the three Marías who were present when Jesus was taken down from the cross: his mother María, María Magdalena and a third María, who was the sister of one of the apostles.
Light Years, Exploding Stars, and Legends
One of Orion’s stars is about to explode, Luis informed us. It is yellow, indicating it is in its last phase, but astronomers never know exactly when a star will explode. I found it impossible to grasp the notion that we were looking at a star which, in fact, had exploded I don’t know how many light years ago. Facts like a star being a young star because it’s ‘only’ 500 million years old – how do you fathom that?
Darkness fell and without the telescope we could see a cluster of six stars, known as the Seven Sisters, north of Orion. The cluster has at least twenty-five different names, but according to one legend there were seven sisters who were in love with Orion. Father Atlas didn’t agree with this and put them in the sky. One, however, managed to stay close to Orion and therefore only six stars are visible. Luis instructed us to now check out the cluster through the telescope: There were numerous stars instead of just six. According to Luis there are at least 250!
Buying Your Own Star?
Luis had a lot of nifty stories to tell, like how a Chinese astronaut lost his tool kit when working in the universe. The kit has a length of 1.5 meters and now moves around in the universe just like the satellites. As it glitters, the kit is sometimes visible through the telescope.
He concluded with one last story, which included a suggestion. You can actually buy a star! There are Astronomy Clubs that have catalogues with all available stars. With your purchase your star will be deleted from the catalogue and you even get an ownership certificate. They come as cheap as five dollars, but don’t count on getting one you can see with the naked eye. You’ll need a telescope to see it. Another thing to consider before buying anything is from where the star is actually visible. It was a bit sad for a German guy who enthusiastically bought a star for his wife, not realizing it was situated near the Southern Cross, which from Germany is never visible.
- The guided tour consists of two parts: one takes place outside, where portable telescopes are used, and the second part is inside a dome, where a 12 inch [36 cms) telescope magnifies the stars, planets and moon.
- Reservations are mandatory and need to be made at the Oficina Observatorio Turístico Mamalluca (Av. Gabriela Mistral 260, Vicuña, tel: (56) (51) 411352) or online: email@example.com.
- Tours start from this office daily at 8.30pm, 10.30pm and 12.30pm. Either you take the mini-van provided by the organization or you follow the convoy by private vehicle to the observatory.
- La Serena lies at about 70 kilometers west of Cerro Mamalluca, which is a good base to visit this astronomy center, as well as other tourist attractions in the area, such as the Pisco distillery in Vicuña or the Andacollo Festival in December. La Serena has an airport with domestic flights, as well as international flights to surrounding countries and, among others, the United States.
- La Serena and Vicuña both offer accommodations, varying from cheap hostels to comfortable hotels. La Serena also has a campground along the coastal road.