After 30 hours of bumping along on planes and buses, at long last I stood in the darkness and gazed upon an immense night sky. It was the first night of a monthlong journey to visit astronomy observatories in Chile, Los Angeles and Hawaii. They spark wonder and discovery, but even before I set foot inside the first one, I was seeing outer space in a spellbinding new way.
That first night in the Atacama, arguably the best place in the world to see the night sky, the Milky Way proved true to its name: a milky-like smear stretching from horizon to horizon. The Southern Cross shone bright as candlelight. However, the real surprise was our moon. I watched eagerly, all drowsiness gone, as it peeked above the horizon just before 11 p. Moonrise was an actual event — a pale, ethereal version of sunrise. Its light spread like brush fire across the night sky, and the desert landscape appeared as if a switch had been flipped. It was early May, autumn in the Southern Hemisphere, and our group had spent nearly five hours staring at the night sky.
Judging by the legions of backpacks, hostels and prominent Wi-Fi signs, it sits firmly astride the trekking circuit of Latin America. Activities abound: There are mountain bikes to rent, salt flats to visit and pink flamingos to photograph. However, I was there to stargaze. The Atacama, a plateau about the size of Pennsylvania, is the driest desert in the world. The combination of its aridity, high altitude and low population results in exceptional seeing , an astronomy term for the quality of observing conditions.
Reservations are tough to get, although its isolation helps the last-minute traveler. Although free tickets are snapped up months in advance, those without reservations show up at the bus stop anyway and often are rewarded. On the Saturday that I visited, only one person was left behind even though at least a dozen had not reserved ahead of time. It has the feeling of a space colony, maybe because of its cleanliness and the unforgiving terrain. Based on my own brief experience, temperatures in the area range from freezing at night to boiling during the day.
No one lives up there, and those working in that environment must use supplemental oxygen. We toured the base camp, the control center and Otto, one of two German-built antenna movers.
Imagine the campus of a widget-manufacturing company transferred to Mars, and you get the idea. For example, it found a simple form of sugar in the gas surrounding a young binary star, demonstrating that some of the chemical foundations of life on Earth also exist in faraway galaxies. Of course, discoveries like that one only lead to more questions. To answer them, you have to keep building more advanced telescopes. The Giant Magellan Telescope is one of two mega observatories currently under construction in Chile, along with the European-led Extremely Large Telescope.
These two observatories belong to a new generation of observatories that will be able to analyze potential life-bearing planets light-years away. The GMT is being built by a consortium of universities in the United States and other countries at a mountaintop site called Las Campanas.
Owned by the Carnegie Institution, the site currently hosts eight other telescopes as well as staff housing that evokes a Swiss chalet.
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He started designing prototypes back in , which means that at first light in , he will have spent 15 years on this project. He ruefully noted that people change jobs more frequently than he changes projects. McLeod traced his interest in astronomy back to high school in tiny Gambier, Ohio, when his chemistry teacher showed him the night sky through a telescope. I spoke with him in the control room of the Magellan Clay telescope at Las Campanas.
He and his team were going to spend the entire night there testing their instruments. However, high wind speeds were spoiling their plans. When I saw them at breakfast the next day, they had spent the entire night in the control room and had only been able to use the telescope for a few hours at most. Plus, nighttime observation requires dim ground conditions — a hazard to driving — while daytime is the period when all the observatory staff sleep.
So many people want to visit ALMA that the external relations staff stay on-site for weeks at a time, doing shift work. Instead, professional observatories use computers to capture data and images and send them to researchers around the world. Nevertheless, visiting these observatories — like my previous visits to particle colliders — boggled my mind.
Le rose di Atacama
After all, those who work at observatories operate time machines that can detect light emanating from the birth of our universe, billions of years in the past. Even with the naked eye, the light I saw from the nearby Large Magellanic Cloud was , years old. I said goodbye to Dr. McLeod and his team and boarded a plane back to Santiago.
As I stared out the window, looking down at the vast brown carpet of the Atacama below me, I considered my situation with strange clarity: I was a collection of bound-together atoms surrounded by other atoms hammered into the shape of a metal airplane tube. And this tube was propelling me through the sky by burning the remains of long-dead plants and animals. Weeks later, my wife and I traveled to Los Angeles and Hawaii to take in astronomy experiences aimed at the general public, the entry point for budding astronomers like the high school version of Dr.
In Los Angeles, I visited one of the most prominent observatories in the world — the Griffith Observatory, built in Like many other science facilities, access to the Griffith Observatory is free. It was a reminder that outside of the cost of getting there, science tourism is generally light on the wallet.
And if traveling far distances is an issue, many universities in the United States have observatories on campus that offer public viewing hours. We visited the jam-packed Griffith Observatory in the late afternoon. It was more than an hour until its inch Zeiss Refracting telescope would open for viewing the night sky, but already a line was forming of people wanting to get a closer look at the planets, the moon and the larger stars.
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I wondered whether the crowds at the Griffith Observatory were due mainly to its Hollywood celebrity. However, other astronomy sites were just as crowded. We experienced this the following day, when we flew to the island of Hawaii to visit Mauna Kea, one of the world's top venues for astronomy.
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The Maunakea Visitor Information Station, located about two-thirds up the side of the dormant volcano, is base camp for the professional observatories on the summit. It is also a center for public astronomy in Hawaii. Four evenings a week, a mix of employees and volunteers trundle out telescopes for everyone to see. People drive up hours before, because the parking lot almost always runs out of room well before the 7 p. Even now, as you pass up and down the country, charred stumps and burnt-out habitations are a sober reminder of the power mother nature wields.
A small number of samples submitted did also show evidence of smoke taint. This said, much of the wine made that year is exciting, particularly in the Maipo Valley. Puente Alto, the nondescript and frankly slightly ugly Santiago suburb, which would otherwise be unknown were it not for the stunning wines it produces, is ground zero in for great cabernet. We harvested three weeks earlier than usual. The summer is what makes the wine, but the winter makes the soil.
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So, these were excellent circumstances. The best s are ripe and powerful but incredibly structured with firm tannin backbones. These three properties, which are adjacent to each other and were once under the same ownership, clearly benefited in this hotter year from the cooling influence of the Maipo Canyon, not to mention their gravelly and rocky soils near the Maipo River. The other important factor in was the human element: picking at the right time and making a careful selection in the winery.
Almaviva, for instance, now employs an optical sorting table and discards around 12 percent of the harvest, with a further 45 percent to 55 percent being destined for their second wine, Epu, which mainly sells domestically. Some may think this removes the human touch to an extent, but the stellar results are hard to deny. What is certain though, is that there is a concerted movement to differentiate and highlight all the various microclimates, varieties and soils that exist up and down the country.
The other is a delicate and expressive old-vine semillon from Colchagua that, can you believe it, used to go into bulk wine. But Falconer is unperturbed. Forget about them for commercial reasons, as that will be negative.
The added value for wine is the place, the culture and the tradition. Diversity in a country is something that makes a country interesting and fun. I understand how difficult it is for these small vineyards and growers to exist. Eighty-five percent carignan is the minimum and it has to be aged for at least two years.
Many plots are still ploughed by horse. The silvery-haired septuagenarian is standing against the doorway of his converted farmhouse in a Burgundy sweater, hunting shotgun over his shoulder and a bottle of Champagne in hand. The quirkiest wines of all though are those being made by MOVI. The group has grown to 37 producers, unified by their small size and belief that together they can be stronger. This cannot be overstated: big business controls the vast majority of the Chilean wine scene, and teaming together is a question of survival for these intrepid vignerons.
Most of the wines are superb. Sven Bruchfeld is the president of MOVI which is a lot less grand than it sounds and in his capacity as owner of the winery Polkura , is walking me through his reds. The calm and collected yet forthright Chilean of German descent is passionate about syrah, and with good reason — his are some of the best in the country. The estate is in the cooler Marchihue area in Colchagua nearer the Pacific, a newer subregion for the valley, where sea breezes and mists often penetrate into the Coastal Range of mountains. Polkura means yellow stone in the ancient Mapuche language and references the amber-colored granite hills that flank the property.
Slightly below, Sven farms his Secano vineyard, which is a unique, dry-farmed parcel of head-pruned vines with a little more clay that helps retain water. The wine is mesmerising, more reminiscent of a white than a red with fascinating aromas of peaches and persimmon. We often make correct wines, not exciting wines.