Marmalluca Observatory

December 12, 2005
Day 75

About the elections:

Chile probably has the most stable government in all of South America, so there were no roadblocks or riots from yesterday's election. In fact, it looks like Chile will have its first ever female president next year. I say "looks like" because they have to have a runoff election in January because nobody got over fifty percent of the vote. It seems strange to me because the woman got forty five percent, and the other two major candidates got around twenty five percent each, yet another election will still be required.

A lot of people here seem mad because they have to cancel their vacation plans to vote in the runoff. Everyone who's over 18 is eligible to register to vote, but once they do, they are required by law to vote in every election from that point on. They also have to vote in the city in which they registered, so the people who were going to be on vacation at the beginning of January have to cancel their plans to so they can come home and vote. I guess that also explains why the buses were still running yesterday, even though everything else was closed.

About my day:

Early in the afternoon, I took a bus to Vicuna, which is about an hour inland from La Serena. The main reason I decided to go there was because it was near Marmalluca, the only pubic space observatory in Chile. The area has a small population and enjoys 300 clear nights per year, which makes it perfect for looking at the sky. I signed up for a tour of Marmalluca as soon as I got situated in town.

At around 10:00 PM, after the sun was long gone, my tour began. I was loaded into a van with six or so other people, and we drove up a large hill near town to the observatory. Our guide, who was also an amateur astronomer, led us into the dome-shaped building where the telescope was. On the walk to the dome, I noticed that it was so dark, I could barely see the path in front of me, despite the fact that the moon was nearly full. Light pollution is the main concern of the observatory, so there are virtually no lights in the area.

When we got to the top of the dome, our guide pushed a few buttons, and the dome opened a bit. At that point, there was just enough light for me to see the big telescope in the middle of the room. Our guide pressed some buttons on the keypad hanging from the telescope, and it suddenly turned around and pointed toward the sky through the slot in the roof.

When I looked through the telescope, I saw Venus. I was surprised to see that it was a crescent like the moon because it looked like a circle with the naked eye. I leaned that Venus and Mercury have phases like the moon because they are between us and the sun. Right now Venus is only 23% full, and it will disappear completely in a few months. It takes so long for Venus to change its appearance because it rotates very slowly. In fact, a Venus day is longer than a Venus year!

Next, our guide entered another code into the telescope and it pointed toward the other side of the sky. This time, we got to look at Mars. Although it is commonly known as the "red planet," it looked more orange than red through the telescope. We learned that a few weeks ago, Mars the second closest to us that it's been in 60,000 years, so it's a great time to see it. The closest approach of Mars was just a few years ago.

It was at this time that I asked how smart the telescope was. I was told that all you have to do is tell it, for example, "Mars," and it will find Mars automatically. It will even slowly move automatically as the sky moves around us! The telescope was very impressive, indeed.

Next, we looked at the moon. To me, it looked amazing because it was very bright and was full of craters. However, to astronomers, it was the worst object in the sky because of its brightness. I then realized that going on an observatory tour when the moon was almost full probably wasn't a great idea because so few stars were visible. At least the moon was bright enough to attempt to take a picture of it.

After seeing the moon, we looked at a series of nebulae and star clusters. Each time, our guide pointed the telescope to an area of the sky where I couldn't see anything, yet when I looked through the telescope, gas clouds and hundreds of stars appeared. In fact, one of the clusters that we looked at contained around 400,000 stars! The universe is mind-bogglingly big.

After an hour or so of looking at the stars, our guide told us a story he had of an exciting experience he had awhile back. He got together with some friends and drove twelve hours to San Pedro de Atacama in northern Chile, where he was able to get some time on the local telescope. When he got there, he finally saw something he had never seen before: part of the Big Dipper! One day, he dreams of going to the northern hemisphere where he'll be able to see the whole thing. At first, I laughed at him because I had seen the Big Dipper a thousand times in my life, but then I remembered that I had never seen the ubiquitous Southern Cross until this trip, but it's no big deal to the people who live here.

I got back to my hostel at about 1:30 AM. Even though the sky was polluted by the moon's light, it was a very interesting evening for me. Astronomy would be a fascinating hobby for me to get into, but I don't have much time for it now due to the whole traveling thing. One thing I know for sure is that I'll never look at the Big Dipper the same way again.

The photo album for this entry is here.

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3 thoughts on “Marmalluca Observatory

  1. Dan Perry Post author

    I have been informed that while a day on Venus indeed lasts a long time, and we do see Venus in phases like the moon, the two facts have nothing to do with each other. The whole phases thing happens because of Venus' position relative to ours, not because of the time it takes to spin. Sorry about that!

  2. Paul J

    When I read that part of your blog, I had the same thought, but then thought, "Dan must mean that the appearance takes a long time to change because Venus turns so slowly and we are stuck looking at the same side for a long time."

    Just trying to make you feel better.

    Here's a dumb question: Do they have a "southern star" that's worth a darn? I know that there are stars all over, so there pretty much has to be some star that's aligned with the earth's pole, but do they have one that is easily identified like the northern star? I have never heard of one.

  3. Dan Perry Post author

    Thanks for not making me feel so bad Paul. The guide first explained that the view of Venus changes slowly from our perspective, then he said that Venus has a really long day, so I just figured they were related somehow.

    For the "southern star" question, I was told that while there are stars on the celestial south pole, you can't see them with the naked eye. Instead, you have to find the Southen Cross and measure 4.5 times the distance between the top and bottom stars into the sky. Straight down from that empty spot in the sky is south. At least that's how I remember it being explained. Our guide seemed very jealous that we northerners simply have to find the north star to figure out which way north is.

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