Long before Yuri Gagarin became the first person in space, we were promised that one day space travel would be commonplace. So far, seven well-heeled people have paid millions of dollars to travel with Russia to the International Space Station—but we have yet to see the first space tourist!
If wheeling about the stars is your thing, there’s a spot a little more down to earth that’s emerging as star-central—Chile’s Atacama Desert, the driest place on the planet after the North and South Poles. Because of its dry air, the absence of light pollution and the desert’s high altitude, it’s also one of the best places for stargazing. So good in fact, that it’s home to two European Southern Observatories (ESO) as well as the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA).
Construction of ALMA began in 2003, with the first scientific observations made in 2011. Although access to ALMA was originally restricted to scientists (and a few journalists), the facility was opened to the public for the first time in 2015. Every Saturday and Sunday morning, a limited number of visitors are transported 50 kilometres from the town of San Pedro de Atacama to ALMA’s Operations Support Facility, where they can observe the control room, laboratories and any antennae under maintenance.
Not only is Chile’s Elqui Valley one of the country’s great wine growing regions, but with an average of 300 clear nights each year it’s also a fantastic spot for stargazing
The ESO’s Paranal Observatory is home to the Very Large Telescope array (yes, that’s its actual name!), the world’s most advanced visible-light astronomical observatory which is comprised of four telescopes—whose main mirrors measure 8.2 metres in diameter!—as well as four smaller auxiliary telescopes. So powerful are these instruments that they have taken the best image of the lunar surface ever recorded from the ground, an image with a field-of-view of 60 x 45km2—the equivalent, states ESO, “of distinguishing the two headlights of a car at the distance of the Moon.”
Also closed to the public since its inception, Paranal recently began opening its doors for a few hours every Saturday.
Of course, you don’t have to visit a giant observatory to stargaze in the Atacama. There are dozens of tour operators who can take visitors into the desert and even hotels who have their own (admittedly smaller) telescopes.
Twelve hundred kilometres southwest of San Pedro de Atacama sits Chile’s Elqui Valley. Not only is Elqui one of the country’s great wine growing regions and the centre of its pisco (a brandy) industry, but with an average of 300 clear nights each year it’s also a fantastic spot for stargazing and is home to a dozen observatories.
Though not quite as powerful as ALMA, this network of observatories are available to astro-tourists and can wow even the most casual of stargazers with glimpses of Saturn, Jupiter, the Milky Way and even the Magellanic Clouds, all with a glass of Pisco Sour to toast the event afterwards.