Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Chile Day Nine - Part 1

Oh so sorry for the break in posting. But I guess we were having just too much fun or something. Then there was the travel. So here we go - day nine.

Today we headed out of La Serena to the mountains. Yes, the Andes Mountains. Holy crap, did I really just write that? We are on our way up to the Gemini South Telescope. For those of you that want to know, there is a Gemini North – it is in Hawaii. Gemini – Twins – two telescopes – cool.

After packing up the car we headed for a gas station. Yes, they sell gas by the liter here and it is way more expensive than we pay. But, they have full service stations. Think about it, can you remember the last time you did not have to pump your own gas?

So off we go thru the country side of Chile. We passed a dam and those that have traveled with me know I just can't pass up a dam or stop using the word endlessly. This dam created a giant lake to provide water and power. They flooded a valley that included two towns, vineyards, orchards, stone walls. One town agreed early to move and buildings were moved , the church was moved, houses rebuilt and the people moved. The other town held out for more money until the last minute and then they had to move quickly. They ended up with a town not so well built and not very pretty. Now looking at this picture, I really hope somebody is concerned with the lack of water in the lake.

It took about an hour to get to the turn off for the telescope. There are actually three telescopes in these mountains and a fourth is being planned. The turn off is a dirt road, a very well maintained dirt road, it is someone's job to keep it neat and tidy and they are very good at their job.

The dirt road is very windy and narrow, they cut the road into the side of the mountain. We finally come to a “Y” in the road and to the left is TOLOLO a big telescope and to the right SOAR and Star Gazer's GEMINI. We stop at this point, there is an overlook where you can look up at SOAR and GEMINI and the proposed fouth telescope. You can see across a valley and you really do feel as if you are on the moon. There is nothing else in sight.

We go right and travel quite a bit more and after nearly an hour and 50 kilometers later (30 miles for us American's) we are at GEMINI. It is huge and just like you have seen in movies. A big metal dome with a part that slides open to let them look at the sky. Notice I did not say stars, because sometimes they are not looking at stars. Hmm..

So we get to go inside, first we check out the bathroom – hey it was a long ride. Then we go into the control room. There are banks of computer screens set up in groups. On one side of the room are six screens where the astronomer sits, on the other side of the room another bank of six monitors where the person that controls the movement of the telescope sits.

Yeah, I know what you are thinking. Hey, I always thought that there was just some person sitting on a high chair looking thru a little eye thingy and that person controlled a big wheel that moved the telescope around to where they wanted to look. Right? Wrong.

The astronomer writes a program that is fed to the telescope and the controller moves the telescope to the right place and the program captures the information the astronomer is looking for. Then the astronomer takes that data and reads it and figures out what has been found or seen.

I also found out that astronomers sleep during the day. I guess I really never thought about that, but it makes sense. There is also an entire crew of people there during the day. Fixing things, tweaking stuff, making sure things are running properly.

They are also doing something with lasers, they shine them up to the sky and get a point that they can then measure and use that to remove the distortion from other things they are looking at. Who thought of this stuff??

We met a very nice man name Gustovo, who gave a report to Star Gazer that the laser tests the night before had been great. No problems. He also talked to us about how the laser gets turned off and on so that they don't shoot the laser beam thru any airplanes that might be flying over or hit any satellites that are up there. He said listening over the loud speakers to the people controlling the laser and spotting the planes is like listening to a sci-fyi movie.

Then we got in an elevator, a very quite, very slow, very steady elevator. Did I mention big? It took us up to the upper level where the actual telescope lives. GEMINI sites on a floor that rotates under a roof that opens, it can explore any area of the sky. She, I'm thinking GEMINI is a she, nobody said this I just felt it, so she can tilt 90 degrees side to side, her mirror (she has no lens) is 8 meter's wide.

Side story here, there is a tunnel on the way to GEMINI, on the regular road. They had to make sure when the Chileans built the tunnel that it would be big enough to bring not just the mirror, but all the other huge equipment. OK, back to story.

8 meters! Think about that, it is big. She has another mirror, smaller up above, she has all kinds of equipment hanging off of her, she gets a bath with soap and water every once in a while. She has a cover over her to protect her from all kinds of things when she is not being used.

The mirror gets re-silvered about once every five years. They unhook all the stuff attached to her and use a 50 ton crane to carefully lift her up and onto a special cart, then they put her onto a special place on the floor that is really a gigantic elevator and bring her down to the basement. They put her into a vacuum machine where they strip off the old coating and recoat her with about a nickel's worth of silver. Pretty damn thin coating. Then she gets a few more coats ending with a protective coating. Then it is back on the cart, up the elevator and back to work.

GEMINI has all kinds of boxes hanging off her. They do all kinds of things, they measure all kinds of stuff, they filter out certain types of light. There is a lot going on and Star Gazer was full of information and it was exciting to see and hear her excitement. She loves her work and it certainly shows. Me, all I could ask was how do you get those pretty pictures. She smiled and explained that to me.

We were there a little over an hour and it was one of the most exciting times of my life. I can remember going to the Boston Museum of Science when I was a kid, I think I was just as excited today. Thank you Star Gazer for a fantastic experience that not everyone gets. If you are ever in the area ask for a tour before hand, they do do them for the general public. They also have dignitaries, like the Crown Princess of Thailand! You just never know who might be on that tour bus.

Then back down the mountain and finally to paved surface. Next time part two of this great day.

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