The Paranal Observatory is one of the world's leading astronomical research facilities, a complex of ten massive telescopes operated by the European Southern Observatory (ESO). Located 2,600 meters (8,600 ft) above sea level in the Atacama Desert of northern Chile, Paranal looks like something out of science fiction. It is both literally and figuratively an outpost on the frontier of civilization, of the human experience. ESO chose this remote site for its clear, dark skies and stable atmospheric conditions -- what's known as good "seeing" -- as well as for the perspective of the night sky the southern hemisphere provides. It feels like a gateway from our world to another, which in many ways it is.
During the day, the sky at Paranal is a brilliant gradient of blue. Far to the east, you can see the jagged fence of the Andes appearing almost big enough to restrain the sun's rise. And at day's end the sun dissolves into an ashbed of clouds over the nearby Pacific. In between these two closures is a terrain that looks more like Mars than our own planet, a desolation marked by hostile smears of reds and browns. The Atacama Desert is the driest area on Earth -- legend has it certain sections have never experienced rain. To get here, we drive an hour past the nearest town on the Pan-American Highway, then another hour through an astonishingly lonely valley. There are no other roads or signs, no shrubs or grass or weeds, no evidence of life -- only hardness, just packed dirt and rocks. It’s like the moon, she says, and I agree. It’s like the moon or Mars or somewhere more distant, just somewhere not on Earth.
Night at Paranal, the work day begins. The slotted windows of the telescopes' housing open, the giant telescopes turn into position where the night's observations will begin. To the galactic center? A newly-discovered nebula off the shoulder of Orion? Glittering C-beams near the Tannhauser Gate? Downstairs, the control room hums with activity. Astronomers, engineers and other technicians conduct the observations approved for the night. Access to these telescopes, like others of its class, is hard to come by. Thousands of proposals are submitted annually but ESO accepts only a fraction. We never realized how competitive astronomy can be. Come to think of it, we never realized just what it is astronomers do or where they work. Somewhere in our dim imagination we pictured lab coats and near-sighted men squinting into long eyepieces but the modern observatory more resembles the typical office place, dominated by computer screens.
"There's no cause for alarm" we hear over and over from computer speakers -- the nerdy in-joke of the workplace. "But there probably will be." Where work takes place in the night is something essential. Here, the office chatter is a babel of languages: Spanish, English, French and German. What are they talking about? Gaussian flux, red-shifts, scalar fields… we don’t understand. A group of astronomers are talking about Mars. We’re delighted by the irony of people spending all their time peering deep into space at places that probably look exactly like where they are. But when we find out later that one of these astronomers is actually part of the NASA team landing the next Rover there and is at Paranal for last-minute atmospheric observations, we feel dumb. Outer space is closer than we think.
We step outside into the night and the sensation of looking up at the stars is overwhelming and emotional. It’s like the first time snorkeling beneath the ocean's surface and discovering another universe teeming with life. How could all this be here and yet we’ve paid it so little attention? The Milky Way is a stellar reef home to millions of stars; the Southern Cross looks more like a kite-shaped ray floating around the Magellanic Clouds; and Mars, that red pearl, a planet we feel most close to tonight. We’re reminded of Einstein’s reason for studying the skies, how it reminded him of how little we matter, how it gave him an opportunity to contemplate the mysterious.
Tonight we wish we’d paid more attention in high school science classes. Instead, we preferred reading Neruda, that great Chilean poet, who coincidentally was a senator from this very region and who undoubtedly spent a lot of time gazing at this same night sky above us. There's something obviously poetic about space, deep and dark as it is, even if we don't know why or just what's out there. "Between shadows and clearing," he wrote, " there are objects that knock, and are never answered, and something always moving, and a name that does not come clear." It's incredibly humbling to spend time here at Paranal with people working to give name to those mysteries. Looking up at the sky, that work feels powerful and important, as if it brings distant stars a little closer or sends us all a little higher.
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