Those words by 16th century Spanish conquerors summed up the stark impression left on their minds by Chile’s most famous landmark – the great Atacama Desert.
Searching for some warm moist air ? Then Atacama is definitely not the place for you to visit. The 1000 kilometre long land, lying to the west of the Andes mountains, is the driest hot desert in the world. In an average year, much of this desert gets less than 1 millimeter (0.04 inch) of rain ! That makes it 50 times drier than Death Valley in California.
Very few life forms can survive in such harsh conditions. But the very attributes that make Atacama inhospitable to life also make it ideal for the oldest of all sciences – Astronomy.
Astronomy is an observational science. Our theories will only be as good as the accuracy of our observations and equipments. Ask an astronomer to describe the perfect place to put a telescope, and here’s what he’ll tell you: Make it cold, make it dark, make it dry, and make it remote. In short, the exact description of the Atacama. Atacama’s exceptionally clear skies and dry air are ideal conditions for getting perhaps the best night sky views we can from this planet.
Being in South America, Chile also holds another ace in the pack considering that Astronomers can observe a different part of the sky than all the northern hemisphere observatories notably in Europe and North America.
The astronomy capital of the world
If asked about where the best telescopes in the world are, then one would probably hazard a guess at North America or Europe. But its Chile that rules the roost.
Chile currently supports 42% of world’s telescope infrastructure and is expected to rise to 70% of the world’s telescope by 2018 . Soon enough, Atacama will be the site of the largest international astronomical project in the world – the Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA) which is a 10 mile diameter giant Radio telescope made up of several smaller telescopes. This amazing telescope could get images of quality 5 times finer than even the Hubble Space Telescope.
To promote future growth, Chilean Universities are offering research based graduate and post-graduate courses in astronomy to attract the top astronomy talent from around the world .
Chile has surplus of telescope time and is looking for talented astronomers to conduct their research thereby benefiting both the country and the astronomer. These astronomers face less competition for telescope time in Chile than in their home countries.This is one of the biggest reasons Chile is and will continue to be the Astronomy capital of the world.
Atacama – the great gift of nature
The Atacama’s geography makes it a place unlike any other on our planet. This vast expanse of barren land has given us the key to unlock the secrets of the universe. We go back as a culture to the study of objects in heaven, like our constellation seeking ancestors did.
What drives us on this journey? Nothing but the feeling of enthusiasm and curiosity that all humans crave for! Lets cherish this beautiful gift that nature has given us in Chile.