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Starry eyed

May 28, 2010

Elqui Valley: We drive into the desert as the sun dies beneath a clear indigo sky, heading for Mamalluca, one of the region’s many observatories. The gravel road corkscrews up for hundreds of metres until we are close enough to the heavens to snatch Venus in our hands, before she dives below the horizon. The sky is clear, the stars twinkle their twinkliest, only the moon is spoiling the show – too full, too bright, and outshining the 88 constellations and our Milky Way.

Our moon. The middle of the three dark craters is the Sea of Tranquility, where the first Earthling landed

The path inside the observatory climbs counter to the road up the hill, anti-clockwise, and is smooth enough to roller-skate down. We follow our astronomer guide up and, a few spirals later, we are at the top, ensconced in a perfect hemisphere whose shape makes for excellent acoustic tricks. Climbing the steps to peer through the telescope, your voice can be heard intimately in the ears of a person a few metres away. Our astronomer, an enthusiastic Chilean from La Serena (he had to move the 20 or so miles here because it’s too cloudy for stargazing on the coast) says he often spends evenings up in the dome playing his guitar and watching the celestial show.

We peer at Saturn, appearing with its rings in near-horizontal perfection, and check the glass to be sure we’re not simply looking at a paper sticker on the lens. In 6 years, the rings will have shifted angle to reveal themselves better to us.

Our guide rotates the telescope to face the opposite direction, turning the entire dome so that its opening sits over the telescope’s new position. It’s a wonderful operation, reminiscent of Bond films. Actually, one of the Bond films was shot in the Atacama desert, at the Very Large Telescope (VLT) – I haven’t seen the film, but it caused furore in fiercely patriotic Chile, because the plot made out that they were in Bolivia. (Before the War of the Pacific, this was Bolivia, actually.)

We peek inside a cluster of colourful stars in red, yellow, blue and white, called the ‘jewel box’ for obvious reasons. It’s beautiful, and I wonder if those stars even exist now because we’re seeing so far into the past with this magical tube. The red stars are the colder, dying ones; the blue ones, superhot and (some) capable of exploding into a supernova, giving birth to new, second-generation stars like our sun. It took our sun just 1 million years to mature into the jolly yellow life-force we depend on, because it’s relatively small. We see Hubble images of stars surrounded by black haloes, from where new planets will one-day be born – perhaps they already have.

La Luna, this time photographed through a x4 telescope

We leave the observatory and stand staring eye to sky in the moonlight, looking at the constellations. Scorpio is an easy one – known here as the monkey, or Nazca. And the Southern Cross is also a quickly recognisable pointer: from head to foot of the cross, multiplied by 4.5, is where the Pole lies. Better, slightly than the northern Pole Star (in the northern hemisphere) which is less constant – in 10,000 years time, there will be no pole star… The quake in February shifted the Earth 8cm on its axis, confusing all things set from far away, but the Southern Cross still points true.

We spend a happy hour finding other constellations, glimpsing a shooting star and staring and staring and staring at the moon.

Heading down, back to the minutiae of distances that can be measured in kilometres and lifetimes that last mere decades, I consider anew how very strange it is that our one species has so dramatically changed this unique planet in just a couple of centuries, while the millennia of other spinning planets and stars spread inconceivably around us.

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