Clouds over Paranal

Oct 22, 2013 in Chile 2013

Clouds over Paranal

Puncture in the desert

Oct 21, 2013 in Chile 2013

Puncture in the desert

An unscheduled stop near Machuca

El Tatio again

Oct 21, 2013 in Chile 2013

El Tatio again

Cordillera de la Sal

Oct 19, 2013 in Chile 2013

Cordillera de la Sal

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.

The road to Calama

Nov 27, 2011 in Atacama 2011

The road to Calama

View from the bus from San Pedro to Calama

Touring the lagunas

Nov 26, 2011 in Atacama 2011

Touring the lagunas

Laguna Chaxa in the Salar de Atacama

Penitentes

Nov 25, 2011 in Atacama 2011

Penitentes

ALMA

Nov 25, 2011 in Atacama 2011

ALMA

Atacama

Nov 02, 2011 in Chile

Atacama

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.