The night sky magic of the Atacama

January 11, 2018 by Paul M. Sutter, Universe Today
Thousands of stars glitter in the black skies above the bone-dry desert of the Atacama in northern Chile. Credit: Universe Today

There's nothing an astronomer – whether professional or amateur – loves more than a clear dark night sky away from the city lights. Outside the glare and glow and cloud cover that most of us experience every day, the night sky comes alive with a life of its own.

Thousands upon countless thousands of glittering jewels – each individual star a pinprick of light set against the velvet-smooth blackness of the deeper void. The arching band of the Milky Way, itself host to billions more stars so far away that we can only see their combined light from our vantage point. The familiar constellations, proudly showing their true character, drawing the eye and the mind to the ancient tales spun about them.

There are few places left in the world to see the sky as our ancestors did; to gaze in wonder at the celestial dome and feel the weight of billions of years of cosmic history hanging above us. Thankfully the International Dark Sky Association is working to preserve what's left of the true , and they've rightfully marked northern Chile to preserve for posterity.

There, the Elqui Valley and the Atacama Desert host night skies impossible to see elsewhere. Away from cities, tucked between the Pacific coast and the high peaks of the Andes, the dry desert air and high elevations make for some of the best observing grounds you can find on Earth.

The ESO’s Paranal Observatory sits proudly above the Atacama desert. Credit: Universe Today

Professional astronomers have taken advantage of this unique climate, constructing massive telescopes and vast arrays on the desolate mountain tops. From the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array to the ESO's Paranal Observatory, Chile is one of the most astronomically productive countries in the world, enabling us to peer into the hearts of galaxies and across the vast reaches of the universe itself.

But the beauty of the Chilean desert sky isn't reserved solely for professional use. In the past decades specialized resorts have sprung up across the Elqui and Atacama regions, allowing skywatching junkies, enthusiasts, and dreamers to sit in awe under the bowl of the heavens.

I'm personally incredibly passionate about sharing the wonders of astronomy, so that's why I created AstroTours to let people from around the world experience science for themselves. And as soon as I got the company off the ground, I set my sights squarely on the Atacama.

The open-air observatory of the Alto Atacama resort provides a unique stargazing opportunity. Credit: Universe Today

In December 2018 I'm leading a small group to the Atacama, one of the driest places on Earth, so that every night we can sit in the open-air observatories (there's no need for a dome to block out light pollution here!) and enjoy the sky in all its splendor. During the day we'll explore the alien and otherworldly nature of the Atacama itself, from the desiccated salt flats to the relaxing hot springs. It's all based at the Alto Atacama resort, tucked in the quiet town of San Pedro, Chile.

Explore further: Image: Salar de Atacama from orbit

Related Stories

Image: Salar de Atacama from orbit

November 17, 2017

From the Salar de Atacama salt flat in the east to the Cordillera Domeyko mountains in the west, Sentinel-2 takes us over part of the Atacama Desert in northern Chile.

Atacama Desert may have harbored lakes, wetlands

December 14, 2016

The arid Atacama Desert, thought to be a barrier to early South American settlers, may have held lakes large enough to sustain small human populations, according to new research presented here today. The lakes' presence challenges ...

El Nino covers arid Atacama desert in flowers

October 30, 2015

Here's a softer side to the disruptive weather phenomenon known as El Nino: an enormous blanket of colorful flowers has carpeted Chile's Atacama desert, the most arid in the world.

Chile desert combed for clues to life on Mars

April 6, 2017

Chile's Atacama desert may seem to contain little besides red-grey rocks and sand—but scientists are busy searching here for clues to life in a place it much resembles: Mars.

Recommended for you

Unusual doughnut-shaped jet observed in the galaxy NGC 6109

August 15, 2018

Astronomers from the University of Bristol, U.K., have uncovered an unusual doughnut-shaped jet in the radio galaxy NGC 6109. It is the first time that such a jet morphology has been observed in a low-power radio galaxy. ...

Iron and titanium in the atmosphere of an exoplanet

August 15, 2018

Exoplanets, planets in other solar systems, can orbit very close to their host stars. When the host star is much hotter than the sun, the exoplanet becomes as hot as a star. The hottest "ultra-hot" planet was discovered last ...

Unraveling the stellar content of young clusters

August 14, 2018

About twenty-five percent of young stars in our galaxy form in clustered environments, and stars in a cluster are often close enough to each other to affect the way they accrete gas and grow. Astronomers trying to understand ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.