What Survives in the Atacama Desert?



BY THE TIME I arrived on the European Southern Observatory website at Paranal, I might really feel the dryness in my physique. A headache nagged. The astronomers there stated sometimes their pores and skin itched; they didn’t sleep nicely. “Typically you appear to be a 100-year-old individual,” stated Florian Rodler, a 44-year-old employees astronomer initially from Austria. However the observatory, 80 miles south of the coastal metropolis of Antofagasta, is likely one of the finest websites on the planet for trying into house. Its Very Massive Telescope is perched at 8,645 ft atop an explosive-flattened mountaintop, the place the ambiance is comparatively steady and extremely dry. Nearly 90 p.c of the nights are clear. I requested about essentially the most distant object the V.L.T. has seen, and Rodler answered by way of time fairly than house: a couple of hundred million years after the Large Bang, when the primary galaxies have been starting to kind. The whole lot we see in house is prior to now. “Right here we gather the sunshine of the universe,” a Paranal engineer instructed me. The sunshine from the moon takes 1.3 seconds to achieve us. The solar’s gentle, about eight minutes. The closest stars’, a bit greater than 4 years. From some stars, we’re seeing gentle from when the Chinchorros have been making their first mummies. From distant galaxies, the sunshine collected by the V.L.T. was emitted lengthy earlier than the Earth was shaped. Twelve miles away on one other flattened mountaintop, E.S.O. is constructing a brand new telescope, the Extraordinarily Massive Telescope, which shall be used for, amongst different functions, trying to find exoplanets which may help life.

I spent the night time within the residencia for scientific employees, a protracted, low construction constructed into the mountainside downhill from the V.L.T. that, within the James Bond movie “Quantum of Solace” (2008), stands in for a Bolivian eco-hotel that will get spectacularly blown up. My room was easy, with a twin mattress and a view onto the Mars-like purple panorama. The primary constructing has a big, translucent dome that permits daylight however should be lined at night time. For the sake of the telescopes, all gentle should be contained.

On my means again to the residencia, I finished and regarded up on the billowing arch of the Milky Approach. The air was chilly, clear and silent. The darkness was thick and velvety and, overhead, the universe receded and receded. The realm of the lifeless, the realm of the celebrities. It appears pure to need to join the 2, to attract a hyperlink between two nice unknowns. The Atacama, for all its vacancy, shouldn’t be a void. It’s, by way of quirks of nature and accidents of human ingenuity, a bridge throughout the best void. The desert, in its dryness, retains the lifeless and opens the sky.

Retouching: Nameless Retouch. Photograph assistant: Karl Leitz. Drone operator: Francisco Petersen