During the middle of July I headed out to Chile to visit the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope, and to use one of the 8m Unit Telescopes for the first time as a visiting astronomer. Most of the data from the VLT, and all the data I’ve had until now, is taken in Service Mode – someone makes the observations for you and sends you the results. So, despite having had a fair bit of data from the VLT, I had never actually visited. Many other people have, including James Bond, who got to blow up the accommodation block for the telescope in the movie Quantum of Solace.
The trip involves flying to Santiago, the capital of Chile, and then another flight up the coast to Antofagasta, a port of the Pacific coast, at the edge of the Atacama desert, followed by a two hour drive through the desert, past mines and ore refineries, then up into the mountains and to the observatory itself.
The first thing I got to see when I got there was the Residencia, which is really quite something.
This is the building Bond blew up. Fortunately he left us astronomers somewhere to sleep. He also left a couple of plastic rocks that he hid behind in the movie. There aren’t any real large rocks in the area, so they had to make a few, which they then left behind.
The outside of the residencia is actually less impressive than the interior, which wasn’t shown in the movie. The key thing to remember about the place is that it is in the middle of a very dry desert, so there isn’t much water vapour in the atmosphere. That isn’t conducive to good human health, so the architects decided to do something about it, and built not only a swimming pool inside the building, but also added a small jungle.
There is also a second small forest which was just outside my room.
The telescopes themselves are also rather imnoressive. This is a view from the Residencia of the observatory ‘platform’ at the top of Cero Paranal, where the top of the mountain was removed, and four 8m telescopes, the 2.5m VLT Survey telescope, and the auxiliary telescopes of the VLT Interferometer were built.
Up close one of the unit telescopes looks like this:
and the inside is like this:
The telescopes are actually so big, and fill the interior of the domes so well, that it’s very difficult to get over the feeling of size that you have when inside the domes. They also move completely silently – a sign of very high quality engineering.
The overall impression I got from my visit to the VLT is that it is a very well run operation, that knows it’s one of the best observatories in the world, if not the best, and it offers a world class service to its users.
I got some great data, but that’s another post, since there’s a lot more work to be done reducing and analysing it.