Between Nov 13th-22nd, 2004 i joined the BBC Sky at Night team on a visit to film at ESO's Paranal Observatory, atop Cerro Paranal, in the Atacama desert, Chile. We spent 3 nights at the Observatory filming by day, and observing and imaging by night. The night skies were incredible, and magnificent views of the southern sky was enjoyed by all.

We later also visited the site of ESO's Atacama Large Millemeter Array (ALMA) at Cerro Chajnantor, deep inside the Atacama desert, near the small town of San Pedro de Atacama. When completed, it will be the worlds highest observatory, lying at over 5000m (16'500ft) altitude. All photographs are by Myself, except where noted.

 

 

The flight home. The evening flight home presented some spectacular views of Andes and the storms present over the area. At left, Mt. Aconcagua (6995m) is seen sticking through the clouds, and right a huge storm cell is lit up by the setting Sun.


Cactus Field. Half way up the mountain grows an area of Cactus's, They only grow in a narrow strip in altitude on the mountainside.


The APEX Telescope. The first of the planned 60+ sub-millimeter dishes to be errected at Chajnantor is APEX, which at the time of my visit was the only operational telescope at the site.


Group Photo. Here is a photo of us at the top of Cerro Chajnantor at 5124m (16'842ft) above sea level. From left, Cameraman David Evans, Producer Jane Fletcher, Co-presenter Chris Lintott, ALMA site manager Jorg Eschwey, ESO PR officer Valentina Rodriguez, and Myself.


The Sky at Night's high point. At the top of Cerro Chajnantor was the highest site the programme had ever been filmed at in over 600 episodes!.


The Salar de Atacama. From the top of Cerro Chajnantor, the view across the huge expanse of the Atacama salt flat was remarkable. The Salar de Atacama is the worlds largest salt flat.


A Multicoloured Mountain. This volcano seen from Chajnantor show remarkable colours, including lime green sulphur deposits, and scattered snow. One of the most remarkable peaks we saw during our entire visit.


Landscape at Cerro Chajnantor. A view of part of the remarkable landscapes seen at Cerro Chajnantor, site of the Atacama Large Millemeter Array at over 5000m altitude.


Road Block!. On the road up to the Chajnantor site we encoutered two wild donkey's blocking the road. They seemed most interested in us, and were rather reluctant to move!.


 

Licancabur Volcano. The view in San Pedro is dominated by the spectacular Licancabur Volcanic peak, rising to 5916m (19,445ft.) It is the most distinct of all the peaks in the range visible from here.


The Road to San Pedro. On the drive from from Paranal to San Pedro de Atacama, a few miles outside San Pedro lies this amazing "crater like" formation where many had stopped to admire the dramatic scene.


Sunset from the top of Cerro Paranal. At the top of Paranal at the telescope platform 2635m (8661ft) above the ocean, was the most dramatic location to watch the sunset. This photograph was taken from inside the dome of UT1, looking west across the cloudy Pacific ocean below.


Telescope UT1 at sunset. The first of the telescopes to come into operation was UT1, or Antu. It is seen here with shutters open, as sunset approaches, and is soon ready to begin the nights observations. The domes are climate controlled, so observations can begin as soon as the sky is dark,.


UT2 and UT3. The domes of UT2 and UT3 can be seen here, along with the small clamshell dome of one of the moveable auxiliary telescopes which will be used as part of the VLT interferometer. Later, the domes open up at sunset.


The Paranal Weather mast & DIMM. Meteorological conditions at Paranal are monitored constantly. The small clamshell dome contains a telescope dedicated to monitoring the atmospheric seeing conditions, known as a Differential Image Motion Monitor (DIMM.)


A Distant Mountain. The highest peak of the Andes (Mt. Aconcagua) at 6995m can be seen from the top of Cerro Paranal. It lies over 200km away!.


The Observatory Road. The above image shows the road leading up to the telescope platform. It is lit by two security barriers at the entrance. This shot was captured as an astronomer drove down after finishing a nights work.


Star Trails over Cerro Paranal. The domes of the VLT can be seen illuminated by the crescent moon. All four domes are open, and imaging the distant universe. The observations with the telescopes begin every clear night at sunset, and end at dawn.


Magnificent Orion. As well as enjoying superb views of the Southern skies, more familiar constellations also put on a show stopping display. Orion seen here was littered with so many stars, its shape became much harder to see. I enjoyed my finest views ever of M42 telescopically, and the only time i have truly seen the nebula appearing as it does in the photographs.


The Southern Milkyway. The superb transparency and sky darkness at Paranal allowed jaw dropping views of the southern milkway, as seen in the above photo showing the Crux/Carina region rising over the desert. Prominent objects such as the Coal Sack, and Eta Carinae nebula are easily seen.


The Crescent Moon Sets. The superb transparency of the sky at Paranal gave remarkable views of the Moon as well as Deep Sky objects. Stars could be seen right up to the lunar limb with the naked eye, and it was a dramatic sight as the four day old crescent moon reached the horizon, turning a deep red colour as it sank below.


An Unusual view of Cassiopea. One of the most distinct constellation visible to northern hemisphere observers is Cassiopea. At Paranal however, the constellation hardly makes it above the horizon, as seen in the view. The faint sky glow is from Antofagasta, over 100km away.


The Large Magellanic Cloud. One of the highlights of the Southern sky is the LMC, the nearest galaxy to our own. It was seen in all its glory from the stunning dark skies of Paranal.


Scorpius & Mercury at Sunset. The prominent constellation of Scorpius is well seen in this photo, showing a perspective impossible to see from the northern hemisphere, with it appear "upside down". Also note the brilliant Mercury is present, with Antares also seen close to the horizion.


 

Sunset at VISTA. David Evans and Myself look out across the cloud covered Pacific Ocean, as the sun sinks below the horizon, and our first night of observing and filming got underway. Cerro Paranal lies just 12km from the Pacific coast. Photo Chris Lintott.


Cloudscape. Paranal mountain reaches over 2.6km above sea level, and from there the clouds lie far below. The cold humbolt ocean current that runs along the coast here and the near permanent prevalence of a high pressure sytsem and its attendant trade winds, creates a strong inversion layer at around 1000m altitude, traping the moist cloudy air well below the observatory summit. Around 350 clear nights every year are experienced at Paranal.


Paranal Mountain. From the neighbouring VISTA peak, an excellent view of Paranal Mountain can be obtained as seen here. The top of the mountain was levelled some years ago, to accommodate the telescopes, and VLT interferometer.


Panoramic view from VISTA. The view from the VISTA site is superb, with 360 unobstructed views of the sky. As mentioned below, this peak is now home to the Visible and Infrared Telescope for Astronomy, a new 4m wide field survey telescope currently under development which will be the world-leading facility for IR survey work of the night sky.  


  

Preparing the telescopes. The above image shows astronomer Daniel Verchaste and Myself preparing the telescopes prior to sunset. We located ourselves on the neighbouring "NTT peak", which was originally going to be the home of the New Technology Telescope (which was actually built at La Silla Observatory.) This superb site is now home to the UK VISTA telescope, which is currently under construction there. The peak lies 1km N of Cerro Paranal at about 2550m altitude and 24S, 70W. Photo Chris Lintott.


The VLT Platform. After arrival and dinner, we made our first visit to the Platform where the four 8.2m telescopes reside. Here ESO's Public Relations officer Valentina Rodriguez talks to Jane Fletcher, David Evans and Chris Lintott about the telescopes.


Arrival at Cerro Paranal. After the most bumpy car journey of my entire life down the "old pan-american highway" we finally arrived at ESO's Paranal Observatory. The four glistening domes of the VLT sparkled in the afternoon sunlight a few km's ahead.


The Hand of the Atacama. Just of the Pan-American Highway south of Antofagasta, lies what must be one of the worlds oddest and most remote monuments. A huge concrete hand rises out of the desert, and can be seen from miles away. It was built in 1992, and is covered in Graffiti!.


Antofagasta. The gloomy and desolate town of Antofagasta on the Pacific coast was our first overnight stop, as it is the nearest town to the Observatory. It is Chile's 5th largest city, and lies on the very edge of the Atacama region.


Santiago - Capital of Chile. During  our visit, the best views of the Chilean capital were had from the air. This view overlooks part of the city, and on very clear days, the Andes mountains dominates the views towering above the city skyline.

 


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