A Tour of the Las Campanas Observatory - Chile

 

 

From left to right: 100-inch Dupont telescope (far left), 1.3-meter Polish telescope, 40-inch Swope telescope, maintenance shops (4 long metal buildings), Twin Magellan telescopes (on hill far right),
Twin Magellan shops (reddish buildings directly below telescopes), Main Lodge and housing (reddish buildings below Magellan shops).

This photo was taken from the summit of Cerro Las Campanas, future site of the Giant Magellan Telescope

 

Getting There

The Las Campanas Observatory is located in the southern Atacama Region of Chile north of the resort town of La Serena. LAN Chile Airlines offers daily flights from Santiago to La Serena with a travel time
of one hour. From La Serena the driving time to the Observatory is about three hours along the paved Pan American Highway.

The Observatory is located at W 70d41m34s S 29d00m53s. This places it at an equivalent longitude of western Maine and latitude of South Africa.

 

Looking east from the Pan American Highway (Chile Ruta 5) toward the Las Campanas Observatory.  On the distant mountain ridge about 16 air miles away are the 100-inch DuPont (left), 40-inch Swope (middle), and
Twin Magellan 6.5- meter telescope domes barely visible atop a peak right of the Swope. The Observatory is located in the southern end of the Atacama Desert, one of the driest places on Earth. The vegitation in this
area is lush compared to extreme areas of the Atacama Desert further to the north, where plant life is non-existant across great swathes of the desert.
 
Following a paved road east from the Pan American Highway, in 6.4 miles the road forks right to ESO’s
La Silla Observatory and left to the Las Campanas Observatory.  From this point on the road to
Las Campanas is an unpaved but excellent graded dirt surface. The colorful landscape and prickly
flora found here are similar in appearance to that of the Mojave Desert in the American Southwest.
  My wife and I shortly reached a Carnegie Institution sign reading “Area of Scientific Interest; Protected Area”
Public visitation and travel on this road is not allowed without first obtaining permission from the Las
Campanas Observatory headquarters in La Serena.  Although well graded, this road winds through
the mountains and has some dangerous curves and big drops down into canyons below.
 

Approaching the Observatory we came upon the local burro herd taking a dust bath
alongside the road. 

 

These burros seemed unfazed by our presence and allowed us to drive up very close to them.
Here the leader of the pack is checking us out!

 
We encountered this beautiful buckskin mare just past the location where we spotted the burros.
She stood there warily watching us, about to make her exit down the steep hillside.
  Entry to the Observatory is via a security gate.  To gain entry visitors must announce their arrival by
ringing the main lodge using the intercom mounted on the right side of the gate.

 

 

The Main Lodge

The Observatory's main lodge, named in honor of Horace Babcock.  Babcock was a Carnegie astronomer and Director of Las Campanas instrumental in securing the land upon which the
Observatory would eventually be built.  The lodge is located at an elevation of 7907 feet (2410 m) above sea level and houses the kitchen and dining room, a spacious lounge area,
conference room, a laundry facility, locker rooms, rest rooms, and some small administrative offices.
 
The astronomer’s lodge with the Twin Magellan telescope domes in the background.   Another view of the astronomer’s lodge.
 
Looking south from the rooms to the Main Lodge in the background. The Mediterranean-style red tile roofs, natural stone used for building materials, and xeriscapic landscaping blend very well and create a visually appealing ambiance in this harsh environment.   Las Campanas translates from Spanish to “The Bells”.  The mountain got its name from a type
of grayish rock that makes a bell-like sound when struck together.  The rocks in this photo,
upon which a tune can be played, are located just outside the entrance to the main lodge.
 

The accommodations at the lodge are excellent.  Spacious rooms with a private bathroom/shower,
comfortable beds, and black out curtains insure a restful sleep after a long night of observing.

 

Another angle of the room with a view out the window to the east. Note the humidifier (lower right)
furnished to combat the dry air of the Atacama. All rooms have Wi-Fi access.

 

The 100-inch DuPont Telescope

The 100-inch DuPont telescope (left) and 1.3 -meter Polish Telescope (right) at sunset.  Operational since 1977 at Las Campanas, the telescope is named in honor of Irénée du Pont I (December 21, 1876 – December 19, 1963),
a former president of the DuPont Company and head of the DuPont trust.

 

 
Roland Christen of Astro-Physics, Inc. of Rockford, Illinois admiring the 100-inch Ritchey-Chretien
telescope from the main floor.  The telescope is designed to operate as an f/7.5 Cassegrain
or f/30 Coude, however the Coude option was never implemented.  The optics include an f/3
fused quartz primary mirror, 95mm diameter Cassegrain secondary, and a 741 mm corrector
plate located at the primary hole, giving an unvignetted/corrected field of view of 1.45 degrees. 

 

  A view of the 100-inch from the upper catwalk showing the instrument package at the rear and the
flat fielding screen mounted to the shutter opening in front of the telescope.  The massive mount
was designed and built by the Boller & Chivens Division of the Perkin Elmer Company.

 

Looking down the truss tube of the 100-inch at the primary mirror from the catwalk level.  The secondary mechanism is a flip-top design to quickly switch from a Cassegrain to Coude configuration. 

 

A shot of our tour group.  From left to right; Dave Jurasevich, Mike Long, Oscar Duhalde (LCO), Roland Christen, Marj Christen, Dr. Barry Madore (Carnegie).

The 6.5-meter Twin Magellan Telescopes

 

The Twin Magellan telescope domes on Cerro Manqui at 8370 feet (2450 m) above sea level.  Each dome houses a 6.5-meter class telescope, with the Landon Clay telescope in the left dome and
Walter Baade telescope in the right dome.  The building connecting the two domes serves as a storage area for various instruments and a maintenance facility for realuminizing the mirrors. 
Note the tall, slender silo next to the domes.  This is a differential image motion monitor (DIMM) telescope used to measure atmospheric seeing.


The Baade telescope dome up close (above).  Notice the extensive array of louvers to allow for quick
equilibrium of the telescope with the ambient outside air prior to observing.



The first of the Twin Magellan telescopes to be completed, the 6.5-meter Baade telescope (right),
an Alt-Az design showing the open truss construction.  The basic design is an f/11 Gregorian
configuration with Nasmyth ports located on the sides of the telescope to accommodate fixed
instruments.  Note the large, black flex duct at the bottom right of the telescope, which blows
air through the telescope assembly including the hollow truss pipes to facilitate the
instrument reaching thermal equilibrium.
 
     

 

 

With the telescope pointing at a very low altitude (above), a view of the back side showing access
panels to the primary mirror figure control equipment.   In addition to primary mirror figure control,
the secondary mirror is equipped with a tip-tilt mechanism for fast guiding corrections. 
Note the ladders leading to the Nasmyth platforms to the left and right side of the telescope.

A shot of our tour group under the big mirror (left).  From left to right; Dave Jurasevich,
Mike Long, Roland Christen, Marj Christen, Dr. Povilas Palunas (LCO).  The primary
mirrors of the Twin Magellan telescopes were cast and figured at the University of Arizona
Steward Mirror Laboratory.  The mirrors are f/1.25 design made from borosilicate glass with
a honeycomb structure.  A tertiary mirror located in the black cell just above the primary mirror
can be rotated to direct the light to either Nasmyth port or three additional ports on the
primary mirror cell.  Utilizing an atmospheric dispersion compensation corrector mounted on
the tertiary cell, a fully unvignetted 24 arc-minute field of view is achieved at the Nasmyth foci.

 

     
 

An access panel is removed to expose the figure control electro-mechanical components of the
primary mirror used to correct low-order aberrations in the optical system.
 
The storage area for the Twin Magellan telescopes is located in the building connecting the two domes. 
Shown here are a few of the project instruments used on these telescopes.
 

A wide field multi-object spectrograph showing the plug plate and fiber optic cables.
 
The aluminizing chamber for the Twin Magellan 6.5-meter primary mirrors.

 

Future Home of the Giant Magellan Telescope

Note the peak directly over the main lodge in the background with the light colored spoils over the side.  That's Cerro Las Campanas at 8370 feet (2450 m) elevation, future home of the Giant Magellan Telescope. 
Basic civil works to blast and level the site are complete with the first foundations scheduled for 2014. Science operations on the GMT are anticipated to begin in 2020.

 

Heading for the summit of Cerro Las Campanas
 
This is a ring foundation for the water tank to be installed on the summit. Water is pumped
up from hundreds of feet below in the canyon to this spot.


Atop Las Campanas Peak, this panorama shows the initial civil works done in blasting and leveling the top of the mountain in preparation for construction.  Photo taken December 2013.


The telescope consists of six 8.4 meter (27 foot) diameter off-axis mirrors surrounding a central on-axis mirror of the same size, each weighing about 20 tons and forming the equivalent of a 24.5 meter (80 foot)
diameter aperture.  Each off-axis mirror will have the shape of a portion of a parabola, requiring great skill and technical know-how to precisely figure these mirrors.  Light from the primaries will be directed to
seven smaller secondary mirrors, which will redirect the light down through the hole in the center primary to the instrument packages. Each secondary mirror is deformable, providing adaptive optics capability
to cancel out the effect of atmospheric turbulence. With 10 times the resolving power and 100 times the light gathering ability of the Hubble Space Telescope, the GMT will take mankind back to the very dawn
of the Universe and help to unlock the deep secrets of the cosmos, including our quest for understanding two fundamental drivers of the Universe, dark matter and dark energy.

An artist rendering of the completed GMT

Photo credit: Todd Mason - Giant Magellan Telescope

 

Click here to see a 6 minute YouTube video introduction to the GMT

 

Flora and Fauna

 


Despite the harsh environment making it one of the driest places on Earth, the Atacama Desert
has beauty everywhere in the form of flowering plants.  Shown here is the ubiquitous
Pata de Guanaco (Cistanthe Longiscapa).

 


Even at an Observatory, looking down is often as rewarding as looking up. This small but
vibrant purple flower blooms on a plant closely hugging the rocky soil.

 

This purple purple flower, which I've not been able to identify, carpeted the ground
in one small area near the Main Lodge.
 


This delicate flower, a native Chilean species which comes in a variety of colors,
is called the Inca Lily (Alstroemeria Padilla)

 


Guanacos are a camelid species native to South America.  They are large animals, standing
up to 4 feet tall at the shoulder and weighing up to 200 pounds.  Their close relatives, the
llama, alpaca, and vicuna are also found in Chile. Guanacos and their kin will defend themselves
vigorously with swift kicks of their powerful legs and lunges with their thick neck, using it as a
battering ram to subdue any aggressor that apporaches too closely.

 


Of the five Viscacha species, the Southern Viscacha (Lagidium viscacia) is found at
the Observatory.  A member of the Chinchilla family, this curious rodent weighs about
5 to 6 pounds and has a body length between 12 to 18 inches long.  An odd creature
with the ears of a rabbit and face of a kangaroo, they live among rock piles and are
most usually spotted perched on boulders just after dawn or before sunset.

 

Landscapes

 

Concluding, I leave you with some panoramic images of this magical place.  Thanks for visiting and I hope you enjoyed the tour.

 


Sun spike on a cloudy evening


A crescent moon and Venus in the early evening sky. Taken from Manquis Ridge looking west, a few lights from vehicles on the Pan American Highway
can be seen in the valley below.

 

An incredible night sky panorama by Yuri Beletsky of Las Campanas Observatory- The Milky Way over the Twin Magellan domes.

Yuri is a friend and expert photographer with his work appearing in NASA's Astronomy Picture of the Day.