It is well known that Chile is hosting the largest number in the world of giant optical telescopes. Good enough for who would like to visit them all, they are concentrated in two areas only, that we present hereafter. Visits are free of charge, although it is required to book a long time in advance.
□ Around La Serena (480km North of Santiago)
Stated as the oldest town in Chile, this regional capital city has an airport well connected to Santiago (a dozen of daily flights are proposed). Some 60km (40 mi.) eastward of La Serena is a series of great observatories:
1. Cerro Tololo Interamerican Observatory (CTIO)
One of the firsts scientific observatories in the country (1976). The main telescope is a 4-meter diameter class, still producing high level astrophysical results: e.g., a few years ago the acceleration of expansion of the Universe has been discovered here, and still today there are no definite theoretical interpretation of it...
2. Gemini South
A giant 8-meter diameter class telescope, initiated in 2001. This observatory has two identical telescopes, the other one (Gemini North) stands atop a high mountain in Hawai...
3. Southern Observatory for Astrophysical Research (SOAR)
The most recent in the area (2006), hosting a 4-meter diameter class telescope that benefits of high technology (namely adaptative optics), making it more powerful than standard telescopes of the same class.
4. Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST)
Still in the building process, this 8-meter diameter class telescope should be completed in 2017. It will be unique in its kind, by holding a huge digital camera that allows to survey the entire celestial sphere every 3 days. No doubt that the most subtle changes in aspects or positions of any celestial body will be registered in live...
Some 150km (90 mi.) North of La Serena is another series of great observatories:
5. European Southern Observatory
Together with the Tololo, this venerable institution truly started the astrophysics research in Chile. The facility, also known as "La Silla Observatory", hosts several large telescopes. The main one, a 3.6-meter diameter class, looks rather "small" for the current standards, but fitted with state-of-the-art technology it still delivers premium scientific results, particularly in the field of detection of exo-planets.
6. Las Campanas Observatory
This facility is much more recent: the two identical telescopes, of 6.5-meter diameter class have been initiated in 2000 and 2002 respectively. Contrarily to the Gemini, those twins are settled together, facing each other...
7. Project : Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT)
Scheduled for completion in 2020, we reach here a much higher level, as this is a 24-meter diameter class telescope ! The site is within the domain of Las Campanas Observatory.
□ Around Antofagasta (1380km North of Santiago)
One of the largest regional capital cities of Chile, Antofagasta has an airport well connected to Santiago by several daily flights. A series of great scientific observatories stands 130km (80 mi.) south of the city:
8. Very Large Telescope (VLT)
Also referred as "Parranal Observatory", this facility belongs to the ESO (like La Silla). It holds, among others, a series of four 8-meter diameter class telescopes. Since 1998 they produced a huge amount of scientific discoveries.
9. Project : European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT)
Scheduled for completion in 2022, this telescope will remain the largest in the world for long, as this is a 39-meter diameter class instrument ! It stands on top of Cerro Armazones, a "hill" facing the Parranal Observatory, from where the ongoing works can be seen.
□ ...and what about San Pedro de Atacama ? (300km East of Antofagasta)
People uses to believe that San Pedro is surrounded by giant scientific optical telescopes, but there are just none in the area !...
The mistake is certainly due to the fact that this is one of the most visited tourist station in the world, therefore it displays a huge amount of tourist agencies, among which are several touristic astronomical observatories: we reported 8 of them so far, not counting the great hotels (as Explora, Alto Atacama, Tierra Atacama...) which have their own observatories. However...
However, there is ALMA, a large array of parabolic dishes that collect the radiowaves (e.g. microwaves) from the Cosmos. It is quite unfair that this kind of instruments (also referred as "radio-telescopes") is not so much appreciated by the general public, who considers the actual telescopes and their visible light as far more spectacular. But ALMA is different. Without entering any technical detail, let's just specify that this array of dishes constitutes the most powerful radio-telescope in the world, and that seems to be a sufficient argument for including it in our list...
10. Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA)
Operative since 2014, this very large array of 65 parabolic dishes is spread over the altiplano of Chajnantor, some 80km (50 mi.) south to San Pedro de Atacama. Potential visitors must be aware that the entire site is located over 5,000 meters (15,000 feet) above sea level!
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