Milky Way Stargazing
Did you know the Atacama desert is one of the best places in the world for stargazing?
I didn’t. At least I didn’t until I saw some spectacular night sky photos from a co-worker’s recent trip.
Truthfully, the ability to see the stars is something I have probably taken for granted for most of my life.
Having grown up in a small, rural town in Northeast Ohio, it was actually pretty common to see a star-filled sky at night. But now, having lived in major cities for most of my adult life, I’ve come to realize that light pollution is a very real thing and now, I long to see that dark starry sky when I travel back to visit my parents. Honestly, it never occurred to me just how lucky I was to have grown up with the ability to see the stars and even identify some of the major constellations. Did you know that recent studies have shown almost 80% of North Americans can no longer see the milky way? (Source) That was so shocking to me! I had no idea the US had that much light pollution. I also never considered that someday an entire generation of children could grow up having never been able to see the stars.
Light pollution isn’t so much of a problem in Chile, at least, not in the Atacama desert. The vast majority of the Chilean population is concentrated near Santiago, so there’s minimal light pollution in the northern desert. But, the lack of light pollution is actually just one of the many reasons the Atacama is a fantastic place to see the stars.
Here are at least a few other reasons to stargaze in the Atacama:
- At an elevation of nearly 8,000 feet, the Atacama desert puts you closer to those distant stars than many other places in the world.
- The lack of clouds and rain means clear days for most of the year, and that means optimal stargazing.
- Oh yeah, ALMA (Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array) is there. A worldwide collaboration of astronomers decided to put the largest radio telescope in the world in the Atacama to study astronomy. If they decided it was a good place to store all of that fancy equipment it’s probably a great place to see the stars, right? 🌟
Knowing that we wanted to try to get a good view of the Milky Way ourselves, we planned our trip around being in the desert for the New Moon (the darkest night of the month) and signed up to take an astronomy tour. After an already full day Floating in Laguna Cejar, 4-wheeling through the desert, and an evening in San Pedro we were off for a night under the stars! But first, we needed to learn a little about astronomy, so we swung by the tour office for an entertaining and easy-to-digest astronomy lesson while sipping on Carménère (a fantastic red wine exclusively found in Chile, but more on that later…).
Once we had become at least minimally proficient in some basic astronomy, tonight’s guide, Juan Pablo led us a short way out into the desert where he already had some benches and a pretty big telescope set up for us. We spent a few minutes taking in some of our first views of the Milky Way. After that, he pointed out each one of the planets, giving each person a turn to see them through the telescope. It was amazing to see so much detail – we could even see the rings around Saturn!
Later, we had the chance to try taking our first night sky pictures with our new tripod. How do you think they turned out? I’m sure we have some work to do. Let us know if you have any tips!
Please check out the rest of our gallery back at the mainpage!
Tour: Astronomy Safari
Total Time: 1.5 hours
Activity Intensity: Very Easy
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