Sunday, January 29, 2017

Stargazing 101.

The four points of light just above my head are the four points that make up the Southern Cross.

Wow! What amazing time we had tonight looking up at the stars in the sky.  Both Bro and I live in major US metropolitan areas so our chances of seeing stars is pretty much nil.  I'm so glad we were able to do this because it was truly the experience of a lifetime.

When I was planning this trip, I noticed that denomades.com offered a stargazing tour in Atacama.  That got me wondering about seeing the stars here so I did some research and learned that because the skies over the Atacama Dessert are so unpolluted, this is in fact one of the best places on earth to see the stars.  So, I immediately signed us up for a tour.  Earlier today, as we walked the main street in San Pedro de Atacama (which I will simply refer to as San Pedro from now on), I noticed quite a few tour agencies also offering tours.

The local tour agency, that ran the tour, contacted me via WhatsApp earlier this afternoon to confirm the pickup address.  They would be around to get us sometime between 9 and 9:30p.  We were waiting at the front gate at 9 and the driver and guide were there in no more than 5 minutes.  There were already 2 girls in the small van and that was the group.   Our guide introduced himself as Nathan and he told us that it would be about a 20 minute drive to the spot where we would be star gazing.

It was probably not even a 2 minute drive when we had left the dim lights of San Pedro behind us and were driving in absolute darkness.  There are no street lights once you leave town.

Somewhere in the middle of the desert, our driver stopped the car and we all got out.  It was incredible to look up at the night sky.  There were literally thousands of points of light dotting the black sky, some twinkling, some not. 

We followed Nathan and his flashlight to a circular structure that was nothing more than a high wall surround a patio.  There was some furniture inside but the highlight was the large telescope.


There was already an older man on site.  He was the guide for the two women as they only spoke Spanish.  Nathan's English was pretty much flawless so he was our guide for the night.

Nathan began by pointing out Venus and Mercury which were pretty much the two brightest spots in the sky; we could easily see them with the naked eye.

Through the telescope we also saw Mars, Orion, Sirius, the Pleiades, Taurus, Scorpio, and Gemini.....not to mention at least two satellites, some shooting stars, the Magellanic Clouds and last but not least, the Southern Cross. Come in the winter time and you would get to see Saturn with its beautiful rings.

As he talked, we asked him a slew of questions.  He knew so much which was very impressive given that star gazing is just a hobby for him.  We were all so engaged in looking up at the star filled sky and talking about that our 90 minute tour ended well before I was ready to leave :-(   I think we could've easily spent another hour with Nathan.

Surprisingly, I did manage to take some photos.

The photo below might also be a difficult to make out but it's of the two Magellanic Clouds, named after the famed explorer. 


It may be hard to see but in the photo below, the three diagonal positioned stars, in the middle of the photo, make up Orion's Belt. In the Southern Hemisphere, he appears positioned up side down. Just to the left of Orion is Taurus and beneath Taurus are the Pleiades. Also near Taurus are Scorpio and you can make out the arms of the twins of Gemini.


We ended with Nathan taking some photos of Bro and I standing against the night sky. The photos of Bro and I were taken with my Nikon dSLR, mounted on a tripod. Focal length of 28mm, f3.5, ISO 3200, 10 second exposure for my photo, 13 seconds for Bro's photo.  I couldn't ask for better souvenirs.


By the time we were dropped off at Hostal Lickana, it was almost 11:30p.  We gave Nathan a nice tip for his time and then hurried on inside.  Seeing the stars had really enthralled me so much so that  I had enough adrenaline running through my veins that I wasn't sleepy but I knew I had to get some shut eye.  Tomorrow, we are going to see the altiplanic lagoons and pickup time is 7a!  Our time in Atacama is off to a great start and I'm excited to see what tomorrow holds for us.

Goodnight from San Pedro de Atacama!