Sailing the Atacama Desert
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Sailing the Atacama Desert

January 19, 2011
Like the bow of a ship sailing a rolling ocean of red hills, the southeast corner of the observing platform at Paranal stands over the Mars-like landscape of the Chilean Atacama Desert. This panorama shows the breathtaking view of the horizon, and conveys the feeling of immensity experienced when looking from the top of Cerro Paranal, a remote 2600-meter-high mountain located in one of the driest regions on Earth.

Atop Cerro Paranal is the ESO Very Large Telescope (VLT), the world's most advanced optical and near infrared ground-based astronomical facility, composed of four 8.2-meter Unit Telescopes (UTs) and four 1.8-meter Auxiliary Telescopes (ATs). The fourth Unit Telescope (UT4), named Yepun in the Mapuche language, is most prominent in this photograph, while UT3 (Melipal) and UT1 (Antu) are just visible on the right-hand edge of the picture. Three of the smaller ATs can also be seen on the 200-meter-wide observing platform. The yellow structure in front of Yepun is the “M1 Lifting Platform”, used to move the 8.2-meter-diameter primary mirror (M1) and its support structure out of the telescope building for periodic recoating.

In the distance, over the edge of the platform, is the Paranal Observatory base camp, which includes the Residencia, the Main Maintenance Building, the power station and the warehouse. These facilities are situated some 2 km away from the telescopes, at a lower altitude of about 2400 meters. The whole observatory complex operates as an “island” in the desert, where essentials such as water, food and fuel must be brought from Antofagasta, located about 120 km to the north. The remoteness of the site makes operating Paranal Observatory a great logistical challenge, but the reward is a location with superb conditions for astronomy.

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