After the rain

Apr 14, 2012 in Chile

After the rain

After my interrupted sleep I wasn’t looking forward to my first night unsupervised at the controls, but in the end it was postponed again. Early the next afternoon the decision was taken that the telescopes would not open at all that night, to avoid any possibility of water getting in. The “domes” have flat tops and any standing water could spell disaster for all the sensitive mechanics and electronics.

So we went up to the control room anyway but no astronomy would be done tonight. It was a pity, because the skies after the storm were stunningly clear. With the luxury of having no observatory work to do, I went out on the platform late in the night to appreciate the view.

I moved here in October, at which time the centre of the Milky Way is setting and can’t be seen very well. Now, for the first time, I got a good look at it. It’s stunningly bright and you can only see it well from the Southern Hemisphere. This is a real shame for the 90% of the world’s population who live in the Northern Hemisphere – their view of our home galaxy is completely inadequate in comparison. I hadn’t really seen it properly since I was in Zambia, 11 years ago. So I was really happy to see it again tonight, rising behind the telescopes in the small hours. It will be visible for the next few months, and I will be taking a lot more photographs of it.

Desert rains

Apr 13, 2012 in Chile

Desert rains

After four nights of this shift, one had been completely lost and three partially lost to bad weather. The fifth was my first night as a trained night astronomer. Crunch time. Would I mess it up? Would I break the telescope? Fortunately it turned out I wouldn’t, because the night was also completely lost, with thick clouds and high humidity ruining any chance of doing any astronomy. I was slightly relieved.

I went out on to the telescope platform a few times. Lightning was flickering some way inland, but I assumed the storm would not come out our way. Since I moved to Chile in September 2011, I had hardly seen any rain at all. There was an evening of drizzle in October, and I felt a few spots, literally no more than 10 or so, in January. Otherwise, nothing, and my English soul was in need of watering. But up here in the Atacama, I didn’t think it was going to get any. So when I went out on to the platform again at 5am and actually felt spots of rain, I didn’t really believe it was rain. I just thought it was extreme humidity.

We gave up a couple of hours before dawn when it was obvious the weather wasn’t going to improve. I went to bed at about 7am. Then, at 9am, I was woken up by thunder. Blearily I got to my feet. Thunder? Surely not? And what was this sound, something like rain battering on the window. In disbelief I rolled up the blind and saw that it was true – an epic downpour was in progress. Still half asleep, I went out into the corridor of the residencia and found rain pouring through the roof. The building appears not to be even slightly waterproof.

I was just stunned. I hadn’t expected to see anything like this here in the driest desert on Earth. They tell me it does rain here, sometimes, but the last time had been only eight months ago. I’d thought, during the long dry summer, that when I did finally experience rain again, I might go out and stand in it and enjoy it. But after two hours sleep I was so tired that I just went back to bed, and slept through the rest of the storm once the thunder had stopped.

For a couple of days afterwards, water was still dripping through the ceiling.

Bad weather at Paranal

Apr 09, 2012 in Chile

Bad weather at Paranal

I’m at Paranal right now, undergoing my final training before they let me fly solo at the controls of the world’s premier optical observatory. My training so far has been seriously affected by weather – of the 11 nights I’ve done, five have been completely lost and most of the rest have been partly lost. Last night the telescopes were closed a couple of hours early, and tonight we didn’t open at all. The telescopes have to be closed when the humidity goes above 60%, and tonight it was nearly 100% and there were clouds right on the peak.

Before the clouds came in, though, I went out to take a photo of the night sky. The moon was rising, and Orion was setting. When I took the photo, I couldn’t see the shadow the moon was casting, so I was pretty amazed when I looked at the camera screen to see the shadow of the telescopes, cast on to the clouds below.


Mar 26, 2012 in Chile

Chile is on the Pacific Ring of Fire, the great tectonic band where about 90 per cent of the world’s earthquakes happen. Before I moved here, I’d experienced four earthquakes, one tiny one in Guatemala, two moderate ones in the UK, and one on a previous visit to Chile. Since I arrived here six months ago I’ve felt five more and I’m starting to get used to how often they happen. I felt two at Paranal on my first shift there, and then in January I felt my first one in Santiago, when my building wobbled startlingly.

Every earthquake feels different. On Saturday morning I was woken at 4.30am by the building shaking again, and it felt like all the motion was vertical. The previous quake had felt completely side-to-side. There were two distinct pulses of shaking, and the building creaked eerily in the quiet night. I got up and went out onto my balcony, and all around I could see lights coming on in apartments. I tried to check but found that the website was down. This happened in January as well. Any earthquake large enough to be felt triggers a wave of people wanting to know how big it was and where it happened. Eventually the website came back up and I found out that this had been a magnitude 5.0 earthquake, centred just 30 miles from Santiago. No damage reported, no casualties, only a slight irritation to be woken up so early. That evening I met up with some friends, some of whom had been here in 2010 when Chile suffered one of the largest earthquakes ever recorded. We all talked about what we’d felt.

Then on Sunday evening after a quiet day, suddenly I felt the familiar shaking starting again. At first I could hardly believe it, coming just a day after the last one. We’d been talking about how long earthquakes seemed to last, and as the shaking started I looked at a clock because I was curious to know how long it would go on for. The shaking and noise grew, and as I looked out of my window I could see all the windows in other nearby buildings wobbling crazily. Car alarms started going off, and dogs started barking. But I didn’t feel worried or inclined to hide under a table or leave the building, until I heard some of my neighbours hurrying out into the corridor. If they’re panicking, I though, then perhaps I should. But then, after a full minute of shaking, the quake stopped.

Once again, sismologia was down, and it stayed down for a while, but soon enough I found details on the USGS earthquake page. This one had been greater than magnitude 7, and was one of the largest earthquakes of 2012 so far. It was easily the strongest earthquake I’d felt, and for some time afterwards I kept thinging that the building was shaking again.

The earthquake was centred near the coast and the next concern was whether there would be a tsunami. Before 2004 I guess most people wouldn’t have thought too much about this risk, but now we’ve all seen terrifying footage of what they actually are. In Santiago there was obviously nothing to worry about, but a friend on the coast in Viña del Mar was having her relaxing weekend away ruined by trying to work out whether she should head for the hills or not. I did my best to help but found that my vocabulary had crucial gaps in it. “Coastguard (blank) tsunami along the cost of Chile”, I read on one news website. What might that blank mean? Fears? Flees from? Washed away in? I looked it up, and fortunately found out that it meant “rules out”. A couple of hours later the sea was apparently seen to recede dramatically and an evacuation was ordered, but it turned out to be a false alarm.

So we were all safe, and despite the size of the quake there was little damage and no deaths, although an elderly woman died of a heart attack shortly afterwards.

Of course it’s only a matter of time until the next quake. As long as there is no damage and no casualties, I think earthquakes are quite cool. I like the weirdness of feeling the very ground below shaking violently. I find it incredibly impressive and awe inspiring. But magnitude 7 is probably about the limit for this. The 2010 quake released more than 300 times as much energy as this one. That, I will be happy not to experience.

Balcony view

Nov 20, 2011 in Chile

Balcony view

One thing that I really notice here is how dry it is. The humidity is always low, my clothes dry in minutes when I take them out of the washing machine, and in the two months since I arrived, it’s only rained once in Santiago – a slightly drizzly evening in early October. London in comparison is damp and dank and I wonder how I didn’t have permanent prune skin when I lived there.

Today it rained for the second time. I was in the centre of town, going up Cerro San Cristóbal and then walking around Bellavista and Recoleta, and enjoying another hot sunny day. But in the eastern suburbs there was some kind of shower. I got back to Las Condes to find that the sun was shining but the streets were wet, and clouds were roiling over the mountains. I headed back up to my apartment and watched the retreating rainclouds being lit up by the evening sun.


Nov 02, 2011 in Chile


Apparently when the first site tests were being carried out at Paranal, almost thirty years ago, the dryness was so extreme that it was sometimes thought that the instrument measuring the humidity was stuck on zero. As soon as you arrive there you feel like the moisture is being sucked out of you and into the endless desert. The desert is almost completely barren; red rocky terrain as far as you can see with no hint of green anywhere.

It’s not a place where human being should live. But it’s amazing for astronomy. The sky is almost always clear, the atmosphere is very stable, and it’s a better place to observe the night sky than almost anywhere else on Earth.


Nov 01, 2011 in Chile


Part of my job here in Chile is to assist in the running of the world’s premier visible light observatory, the Very Large Telescope. A couple of days ago I made my first journey here from Santiago, flying up to Antofagasta and getting a bus from there up into the savagely dry Atacama desert, to the observatory at Cerro Paranal.

What a place Paranal is. I’ve been to several observatories but none have been anything like this. The residencia is an awesome piece of architecture, the scale of the operation is immense, the level of activity is impressive, and the unbelievably harsh desert is terrifyingly beautiful. I will be coming here about once a month for the next three years so perhaps I will get bored of it. But on this first visit, I’m feeling impressed.

Early christmas

Oct 25, 2011 in Chile

Early christmas

All of my stuff arrived from the UK today. It had made the journey much more quickly than I’d expected it to, arriving in Chile before I’d even got around to trying to work out where on the high seas it was.

On a cool autumn day in London, I’d seen it all disappear into the bowels of a huge lorry, and as I watched it drive away from my flat I couldn’t help wondering if I’d ever see any of it again. Then there was a story on the news about a container ship sinking off New Zealand. So when it actually arrived I was extremely happy. It seemed quite strange to see all my familiar old possessions again, on this hot summer day in Santiago.

The two things that I most wanted to arrive intact were my coffee machine, and a kilogram of Marmite that I’d packed in. I was a bit worried that the Marmite could get confiscated, as Chile has very strict rules about food import. But it made it, and with great joy I cracked it open.

I ate so much that I got stomach ache. I don’t think I’ll eat any more for a few days.

Cajón del Maipo

Oct 23, 2011 in Chile

Cajón del Maipo

My previous attempt to see the Cajon del Maipo had been a bit half-arsed, relying on public transport and ending up in the nondescript hamlet of San Gabriel, instead of actually out in the mountains hiking.

So I tried again this weekend, with a couple of other ESO people. We hired a car, and left reasonably early. Having your own wheels definitely makes a big difference, and instead of spending hours on the bus chugging through all the distant Santiago suburbs, we were in the valley in less than an hour.

But we didn’t get everything right. We stopped in Baños Morales for a lengthy and tasty lunch, planning to hike to a glacier afterwards. But by the time we rolled up to the national park entrance, sated and sleepy but none the less keen to hike, we were told the trail had closed 20 minutes earlier.

So we had to find something else to do. We randomly ended up spotting a large red rocky outcrop, high up in the hills above Lo Valdes, and decided to go there. It was a good hike, scrambling up some steep and precarious scree slopes. The skies threatened but only delivered a few spots of rain. We made it to the outcrop without getting wet, and from it we got awesome views over the valley.

After we headed back down, the heavens finally did open, but we were safe in our car by then, and we drove down the valley as the sun broke through the rain clouds again.

Balcony view

Oct 15, 2011 in Chile

Balcony view

I moved into a new flat yesterday. I was perhaps a bit rash, as it was only the second place I looked at, but it was more or less the kind of thing I was looking for and I didn’t want to spend any longer than necessary in my temporary accommodation.

What really persuaded me was the views from the balcony. London is not a high-rise city, and I’d almost always lived in houses while I was there. The one time I lived in a block of flats I was on the first floor. So this flat, up high on the 15th floor, was something new. And it faces east towards the mountains, so the height is worth having.