13 July 2015

A window to the universe

In 1852 the Chilean National Astronomical Observatory (OAN) was created, merely 34 years after the declaration of independence from the Spanish monarchy. The first building and set of astronomical instruments owned by the OAN were purchased from a US Navy scientific expedition that collected data to measure the distance to the Sun in collaboration with observatories in the northern hemisphere.

By the end of that century Chile had become the most active Latin American country in astronomical research. Precise determination of Valparaíso location and southern astronomical charts were among the most important contributions. In 1903 the Mills expedition of Lick Observatory started the operation of a 1-meter telescope in Cerro San Cristobal, by then in the outskirts of the city of Santiago. That telescope is now part of our national heritage and it is still at the same location, now in the middle of the city.

By 1960, there were only 10 astronomical observatories located south of the Equator. This was a recognized problem given the location of many interesting astronomical objects in the southern skies. The next great push for Chilean astronomy came with the installation of the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory (CTIO) mostly thanks to impulse given by Federico Rutllant, one of the most prolific directors of OAN in the 1950s. It was also during this time that Belgium, France, Germany, the Netherlands, and Sweden came together to form the European Southern Observatory (ESO) and then turned their eyes away from South Africa and towards Chilean territory where they found the best climatic and observing conditions for an astronomical observatory. In late 1964 the Chilean government signed the contract with ESO to proceed with the installation of La Silla Observatory (LSO). Since then, the unsurpassed atmospheric and political conditions present in Chile have attracted the international community to invest in a plethora of state-of-the-art scientific facilities.

Currently, close to 40% of all the Optical/Infrared/Submillimeter light that reaches astronomical instruments in the world comes through facilities located in Chile. This figure will rise to 70% in the 2020s, once the next generation of projects are finished. The main astronomical facilities projected are the Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT) with a diameter of 25 meters, the European Extremely Large Telescope (EELT) with a diameter of 40 meters and the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) with a diameter of 8.4 meters and a camera of 3200 Megapixels. All of them preceded by the Atacama Large Milimeter Array (ALMA), already in full operation, with 66 antennas each of them with a diameter of 12 meters. All these projects belong to different international consortiums with a total investment estimated in US$ 3750M.


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