27 October, 2012

Day 110, 123km: Space day

I contacted several observatories in Chile, as most of the world's most recent/biggest/most awesome observatories and telescopes are located in the Atacama desert. Turns out that visits are possible at some of them, for example the Very Large Telescope. I'm scheduled to go there at the end of the week. The place is only 400km from San Pedro de Atacama so I'll be taking it very easy this week!

The left one tops at 6000m+
 Today I planned to try and see as many space/star related stuff as I could! So I started the day driving towards the construction site of ALMA, the world's largest astronomical project under construction. I already contacted them and knew that visits weren't allowed. I figured I'll try to drive up to the site's gate and hopefully glimpse at the antennas.

Cool dirt road in the Atacama plateau
Now I didn't really expect the road over there to be so high! I left form the hostel wearing jeans, tennis shoes and my jacket. God I was cold!

Prohibido el ingreso, damn!
The site's gate was too far to see any of the antennas. They'll open a visitor center once the construction is complete, sometime in 2013.

Temperature, 4 degrees C
 Considering the temperature, the wind and the fact that my clothes we absolutely inadequate, I didn't stay long up there. That was an impressively steep ride, we lost 2000m of altitude in just 30km. That's an hardcore average of 6.7%.

Getting back to San Pedro de Atacama
 It was great being back in the city with its comfortable 25 degrees C! Next I headed to the "Meteorites Museum".

Beautiful meteorite, pallasite
They had quite an impressive collection of meteorite, showcased in a relatively small room but they beauty and rarity of the pieces on display made it totally worth it. Above is a pallasite (IIRC), a stone-iron meteorite. How they are formed is pretty cool. Imagine you're an asteroid, wandering through the solar system a few billion years ago. You're still young, like all the surrounding bodies. Your haven't cooled yet and parts of your structure are molten.
Then suddenly, another asteroid smashes into you at a tremendous speed. You're totally shattered by the impact. Under the extreme shock, crystals are formed in parts of your external layer of rocks (mantle) and then mixed with your core's metals. This beautiful mixture is subsequently thrown into space by the impact on another orbit around the sun.
An orbit that eventually crosses the earth's and allows the humble earthians to have a look at your beautiful remains.

The above shows the different constituents of asteroids, form the rough mantle rocks (top left) to the dense iron core (bottom)
It was really cool seeing these meteorites, plus they had an English speaking guide and English language information panels. What's even cooler is that these meteorites were found in the nearby desert by the museum owner. According to the guide, it takes a hundred "searches" for a successful meteorite find. How could would that be finding something from SPACE while hiking through the desert?

Granted, the earth is from space and we're made of the dust of generations of long dead stars. Still, seeing these pieces of our spatial neighbors gives a sense of proximity with what's orbiting above our heads.

Zoom in for explanations on the above "yellow" meteorite formation
I was surprised to learn during the visit that there's actually a "meteorite market" where people trade their finds. According to the guide, what was in the museum (perhaps 50 kg of rocks) is valued at around a million USD. Good job guide, great way to shatter my dreams of having a meteorite with a single sentence.

Oh and the coolest part? You can touch meteorites
Guess what? Yeah. It feels like touching a rock. Still, a rock that fell from space to our planet!
After this visit, I registered for an astronomy introduction course, scheduled to start at 1am and came back to the hostel.

Surprise! A dozen F800GS!
The drivers of these motorcycles were nowhere to be found. The hotel staff told me they were on a tour from Argentina. Probably a dozen of them. It was quite surprising to see Bertha's sisters and brothers. I have to say they look much prettier without all the panniers and luggage.

Last stop of the day, astronomy introduction course!
There were perhaps a dozen of us, religiously listening to our Canadian guide on a freezing night somewhere near San Pedro de Atacama. The initiation started with basic tips for one to orientate himself in the night-sky using the earth's geography (latitude, direction of the south) as well as "easily" (for him!) recognizable stars and constellations.

It was really cool having a professional explain us these things and casually point at each constellation, explaining us how to find the zodiacal plane, our solar system planets and all of that.

It's probably the first time in my life that I have actually been "star gazing" for an extended period of time. Realizing after a while that the night sky is rotating around the earth's axis, stars appearing in the east and disappearing in the west was pretty cool.

We even got to take our own shots of the moon
They had a variety, perhaps a dozen, of telescopes available for our own use. They were ranging in size between "I can put that on my balcony" to "I'd need a large flatbed truck to move that around". And we were able to view the moon like picture above, clearly some of Jupiter's satellites, and discover thousands of stars in nearby galaxies. Really amazing.

After a hot chocolate, back to the hostel for a good night sleep.

Live long and prosper,
Guillaume

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