Observing at CTIO

During the last two weeks, I was at Cerro Tololo, Chile, observing the night sky with the 4 meter Victor Blanco telescope as part of a survey of our galactic plane. At the prime focus of the telescope is the Dark Energy Camera (DECam), a ~ half gigapixel array of CCDs. Having much wider pixels compared to commercial CCDs, this camera yields the deepest wide fields I have ever seen. Furthermore, having had my first exposure (pun intended) to observational aspects of astronomy, I thought I should write about my experience.

The observation site is at an altitude of ~ 2300 meters at a fairly dry and desolate peak in Northern Chile. It is inside a dark sky santuary, which makes night, a unique experience. During the day, since there is no nearby town, you get to hang out with foxes, cactuses and spiders when you are not working. A typical day starts with getting up at ~ 3pm, eating dinner (trying to convince yourself that it is breakfast) and heading up to the telescope for the night observation, which has to finish just before the run rises above the horizon. Some night shifts like ours are divided into two so that you only observe half of the night.

This gave me an excuse to take occasional walks outside at night, which have been a memorable experience. After the Sun sets, but before the Moon rises, if you step outside the observatory, you basically soak yourself in utter blackness. Only after a minute of blindness do your pupils adapt to allow a fascinating view of the night sky.

Having spent my whole life on the Northern hemisphere, this has been my first naked eye view of the galactic plane. So I decided to take a long exposure of the inner Milky Way with my DSLR.

The field is crowded with stars otherwise invisible to our eyes. One can also see the dust clouds in the galactic plane, which absorb the light from background stars. The Magellanic Clouds are also visible to the South of the galactic plane.

Absolute darkness and silence, coupled with the ambient starlight help establish a unique connection with the Cosmos!