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Comet ISON Tour – November 8, 2013

Pangue Observatory Information from Vicuna Office

Below is a description of my second day of an astronomy tour with Bob Berman, his daughter Anjali and over three dozen fun and good natured people from the world over.  I posted an introduction and summary of my first day a few weeks ago.

Breakfast at the Hotel Santa Lucia sets a pattern for the rest of our stay that disappoints me slightly but was a source of varying amounts of ire for my tour mates – the inability for us to find a cup of coffee that suits us. Note I did not say “could not find a decent cup of coffee.” The instant coffee with water or milk seemed to be quite decent for the Chileans who drank it. That we didn’t like the style shouldn’t be the problem of an institution that seemed to cater to mostly South Americans. At least the hotel staff spoke very little English. Thankfully my Spanish was mostly comprehensible to them when I had requests.

We left shortly after breakfast to take a flight to La Serena because most of our planned activities were in the north of the country. Security was simple metal detectors. We had to remove our belts but could keep our shoes. It was a welcome change to what I’m used to at US airports. It felt like, you know,
freedom.

We took Sky Airlines, a regional carrier, that delighted our whole party by serving a free full snack tray with choice of water, juice, beer or wine on a 45 minute flight. In the States you’re fortunate to get a small tub of orange juice and set of pretzels. It was my first experience of superior customer service
from a foreign carrier.

I felt fine after the flight to La Serena, but developed some bad intestinal troubles that resulted in a desparate roadside stop during our three hour bus ride to Vicuna. Far from showing irritation at the delay in an already long day, my tour group partners were very sympathetic. I felt rocky after the desperate roadside stop, but tried to follow the tour plan — stopping in Vicuna for lunch before checking into our hotel. While I was trying to struggle through lunch, a member of our group who was a retired nurse came and checked my pulse and asked me some questions. Satisfied I wasn’t going to keel over in the restaurant, she suggested it might be good idea to try to go the hotel early. I agreed and Anjali graciously immediately put her own lunch aside to walk me the few blocks over to our hotel – the lovely, family run Hostal Aldea Del Elqui. I got my room and when our luggage arrived after lunch, the owner had one of his teenage/adult children bring up my big bag to my room. Given that I could barely make it up the stairs at that point, this was really, really welcome! After this, one of the first people I met in the tour group stopped by my room. It turned out he had medical training as well and we chatted about some of the things my problem could be as it wasn’t quite your traditional traveler’s diherrea. He also offered some OTC remedies from a kit he carried for just such emergencies. I gratefully accepted some pepto, took some of my own ibuprofen for my killer headache and went to bed.

Today was our first night of observing. I didn’t want to miss it and fortunately after four or five hours of sleep, I thought I was ok enough to board the bus at 11:30pm for the hour or so bus trip to the El Pangue Observatory. It was a VERY rocky ride over Andean dirt roads and I was afraid I was going to vomit, but I didn’t.

I was very happy with the facilities at the El Pangue Observatory. This is a private facility built for the express purpose of serving astronomy tourists. There were three telescopes on site – a 16″ Schmidt Cassegrain “go to” reflector, a 25″ Obsession Dobsonian and a 12.5″ Dobsonian. The larger telescopes were operated by university students hired by the observatory. The 12.5″ was “drive your own.” It was a little stiff in the azimuth, but otherwise fine. The astronomy students hired to operate the larger telescopes were both competent and pleasant. They spoke English well enough for the mostly monolingual tour group.

Our group was split into three. We started off with a Southern Sky orientation from Bob Berman. I was struck by how knowledgable he was. He knew many star names and star distances in addition to the constellation names we all expected him to know. He also pointed out that though we were in the Southern Hemisphere, we could see some of the constellations from back home, Although these constellations looked upside to us. More proof the Earth is round, by the way. He also pointed out the Magellanic Clouds and Alpha Centauri. He pointed out Crux/Southern Cross when it rose. It was a very helpful orientation.

He also demonstrated a crowd/meeting control technique. A side conversation started during Bob’s orientation and he just stopped talking. Then he stated that he would not talk when others were talking because he didn’t feel like competing with them. It worked. No more side conversations took place for the rest of the orientation.

The next phase was for us to view objects selected as outstanding Southern Sky objects by Bob and the other astronomers. After that we could either request objects at the large telescopes or use the 12.5″ or binoculars. In between viewing sessions we could take refuge in a warming room.  Here are my thoughts on the objects that made the most impression on me.

Magellanic Clouds – I saw these satellites of the Milky Way with the naked eye and through binoculars. I was really struck by how truly cloud-like they looked. Even more so than the Milky Way. The only reason I could tell they weren’t clouds with the naked eye was that regular clouds are not nailed to the same spot of the celestial sphere. Nor admittedly, do regular clouds glow.

47 Tucanae – This globular cluster is considered by many to be the finest cluster visible in either hemisphere and I think its rep is well deserved. In the 16″ all I could see was the bright central core that made M13 seem like a faint cluster. Very pleasing to the eye.

Omega Centauri – This globular cluster is visible to very southern locations in the Northern hemisphere, like Key West Florida. It is larger and prettier than M13 in Hercules, but it was the fact that I watched it rise through binoculars that stuck with me. It rose from behind a hill and seemed as wide across as a full Moon. Seeing the looser stars of the outer region clear the hill and get followed by the bright compact center really amazed me. It made me think of science fiction stories where such things could be seen plainly by the naked eye. Omega Centauri rising is going to stick with me for some time.

Alpha Centauri – I can’t really tell you why, but seeing our closest stellar system neighbor made me happy.

It was only knowing its designation that gave me a warm feeling. The 16″ split this double star and that looked nice too.

Orion Nebula (M42) through 25″ – I know it sounds weird to rave about an object I could have stayed home to see, but with telescopes, size really does matter. Through the 25″ I felt like I was seeing the bright and dark parts of the nebula from the bridge of the Enterprise-D.

Many people in the group were VERY impressed with the Tarantula Nebula. I wasn’t as much, but I’m not sure I saw it through the 25″ scope. There was a lot of running around in the night and I was also hitting the bathroom often because I still wasn’t at my best. But if you’re in the southern hemisphere, I recommend it to you.  Fun fact – According to Bob Berman, if the Tarantula Nebula were the same distances as the Orion Nebula, it would be a naked eye object spanning about 30 degrees!

Some people took advantage of the location to do their own astrophotography. If any gets posted to the web, I’ll let you know.

Around 5am, we began the final phase – finding Comet ISON, the formal though ultimately unimportant reason we were on this 4,000 ft mountaintop in the Andes. We got some practice around 3am when Comet Lovejoy, another cometary visitor was visible. It looked like a spherical blob with no tail to me. Sort of like a compact nebula, maybe.

ISON was a challenge because it was around magnitude 9 and rose only about 20 minutes before the sun rose. It was found, lost and and found again over the space of ten minutes or so. During our quick viewing, I though ISON looked like Comet Lovejoy, only dimmer.

Some people might be curious as to what power the various objects were viewed at. I don’t know. Not sure if this was announced and I missed it or it just wasn’t said. I can’t speak for the other people in my party, but I was there more for the esthetics of astronomical objects than in precise observations.

Aside from the objects themselves and getting to see the comet I hoped to see here, I was really happy with the camadradie and the joy of sharing a hobby with new friends. It really made me look forward to the next night. I was very happy that I made the trip – both to Chile itself and to the observatory in particular.

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2 Responses

  1. […] 9th was our second day in Vicuna. I slept in after a great night up at the El Pangue Observatory. I was up to strolling around town. Walking around town, here are […]

  2. […] Comet ISON Tour – November 8, 2013 […]

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