Clouds over Paranal

Oct 22, 2013 in Chile 2013

Clouds over Paranal

We finished our epic Chile journey with a visit to Paranal where I spend 80 nights a year working at the telescopes. We had some bad luck though. The skies are normally clear here at least 90 per cent of the time, but the last couple of years have seen quite a lot of bad weather. And today we managed to pick a cloudy day. We’d seen the cirrus over the desert as we headed out from Antofagasta, but there is quite often cloud nearer to Antofagasta while Paranal is clear. Today it was not so, and the clouds thickened during the afternoon.

By nightfall they’d decided not to open the telescopes. The opening is always impressive to see, so this was a pity, but the engineer who would have opened the dome treated us to a good display anyway, tilting and rotating the telescope so that we got great views of it inside the closed dome.

We went out onto the platform in the night, and through breaks in the clouds we could see stars, but nothing like the normal blazing skies. It was a pity, as I’d planned the trip for a time when there would be no moon and the centre of the Milky Way would be high in the sky at the start of the night. The night before, and the night after, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky.

But Paranal is not only about the night skies. We went for a walk in the desert the next day, and that’s always great. The terrain here is so harsh that just before we arrived, they’d been testing a Mars rover nearby.

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.