Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The Rabbit in the Moon

On the evening of our second day in La Serena we were collected from the hotel and brought by minibus to a town about 40 minutes inland by the name of Vicuña. From there, a road of sorts led up. Up through the town. Up the side of a hill. Up through the fog that was beginning to envelope Vicuña. The road was just a dirt track, sometimes with high banks of recently cleared earth. No street lighting. This should have been well off-piste, but bit by bit our minivan was joined by others. Cars, vans and buses joined their headlights together into a slow procession upwards, until finally we all came to a stop in the carpark of the Mamalluca Observatory.

There are dozens of large telescopes pointing skywards in Central and Northern Chile. The skies here are famous for being clear. Many are European, or American or international collaborations. As our guide would later say, Chile doesn't have as much money as Europe or America, but it has lots of sky. The Mamalluca Observatory was established with the hand-me-downs of larger installations with the express purpose of acting as a public access site. Whereas bigger sites with enormous lenses will let you look in, they won't let you look up. Mamalluca's modest 30 cm reflecting telescope was more than enough for us. We were able to look at Jupiter and make out its layered surface and four of its moons. I have a starter refracting telescope at home which I've pointed on occasion at the planets (not that they've noticed). Cold hands, rickety tripods and no tracking device to keep you on target means that most of the time is spent twiddling knobs and stamping feet, and only a very few seconds actually observing. Jupiter through the lens, until my trip to Mamalluca, looked like a distant stale biscuit. Rich Tea, at a guess.

There was a full moon that night. Not ideal for looking into deep space, but nice for looking at, well, the moon. So we did. The best place to look, according to Alfredo our guide (who for some reason spoke with an accent precisely the same as my Norwegian friend Kaare - either Alfredo is Norwegian or Kaare has been having a great laugh at my expense for many's the year now) is at the edge of the moon, where you can see the details stand out in three dimensions. We studied an intriguing pimple on the lunar surface only to be told later than it was 3km deep and tens or even hundreds of km wide.

After a powerpoint presentation on the lifecycle of stars and an introduction to the "humourous" naming convention of telescopes (let's just say that astronomy nerds make us computer nerds seem like real wags), we went outside to some other less powerful scopes with wider fields of view - perfect for more moongazing. Letizia took some great pictures through the lens. Then something happened to make me lose track of the astronomical goings on: we met an Irish family of four who were on a ten week tour of South America. Their children were close in age to Nina and Sara and so before long, the four of them were running around like feral llamas, while Letizia and I compared notes with the parents. It felt really good to find someone doing something as daft as we were. I never did get around to asking names, but I did write down this blog address and I hope they get the chance to tune in (hi there family from Meath, if you're reading!).

Since arriving in the Southern Hemisphere, as well as performing important experiments in fluid dynamics, we noticed how different the night sky is down here. The Southern Cross, as its name suggests, is not visible from Ireland (unless you are looking at an Australian or New Zealand flag in Ireland). And Orion - an easy constellation to spot back home - is harder to find due to the fact that he's generally standing on his head down here. ("Silly Orion, always drunk" - Nina and Sara's interpretation). Now Alfredo (or Kaare as I had by now come to think of him) pointed out something which, in all my beer-fueled discussions on matters austral with Simon Pett, I had never noticed. The moon is upside down here too. The Man in the Moon that you can make out from the Northern Hemisphere is nowhere to be seen. In his place is the Rabbit in the Moon. And I have to say that the Rabbit is much more convincing than the Man. Find a picture of the moon (chances are it'll be a Northern Hemisphere one), twiddle it around and hold it at arms length.

What's up doc?!

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