Tag Archives: Astronomy

The Coolest Thing About Gemini

June 14, 2016, Cerro Tololo

We started the day by visiting AURA Recinto to listen to presentations from staff in different scientific areas that all work for the observatory. It takes all sciences to make an observatory run.

We then loaded up and started our trek to Cerro Pachon and Cerro Tololo. Leaving the city of La Serena we saw many vineyards. As we continued into the foothills, it looked very much like the road to AstroCamp. However, the mountains grew a little bigger down here!


T. Spuck (AUI/NSF)

We went to Cerro Pachon first to visit Gemini South, an 8 meter telescope. This means that the primary mirror in this telescope is 8 meters (over 25 feet). In this picture taken by Tim Spuck, you can see that it takes 5 adults lying head to toe to cover the distance.

Besides being really big, the coolest thing about this telescope is the adaptive optics that it uses.


M. F. Peterson (ACEAP/NSF)

The silver box on the left labeled GeMS is the housing for the gigantic LASERs that help with the adaptive optics.


M. F. Peterson (ACEAP/NSF)

This is the business end of the telescope. These are the instruments. They have to be engineered to be able to handle moving around with the telescope. Not always an easy task. One last cool fact about this telescope is that the mirrors are coated with silver instead of the standard aluminum. This makes it more reflective in infrared. The views are incredible everywhere but especially from the top deck of this telescope.


M. F. Peterson (ACEAP/NSF)

Cerro Tololo, seen from Gemini


M. F. Peterson (ACEAP/NSF)

Gemini and the future site of LSST to the right (where the crane is)


M. F. Peterson (ACEAP/NSF)

Even the Andes Condors like the views from up here!

We ended the evening with some telescope viewing led by our wonderful host, Juan. He brought out an 11” and a 6” Celestron. Even with light cloud coverage, I can’t even begin to tell you how amazing the objects looked. Omega Centauri popped out of the sky as if we had 3-D glasses on. Amazing! The planets were just breathtaking. I always get excited by them, but holy cannoli were they clear!


J. Blackwell (ACEAP/NSF)

Here is an amazing picture taken by a fellow ambassador, John Blackwell.

Written By: Michelle Ferrara Peterson


A Haven for Stargazing

June 12, 2016, Observatorio Astronómico Andino

Today’s highlight was visiting our first of many observatories, the Observatorio Astronómico Andino (http://www.oaa.cl/en/) just outside of Santiago.  Unfortunately, it was cloudy.  However, that did not stop our wonderful hosts from putting on an incredible spread and showing us what astrotourism is all about.


Beautiful metal sculptures adorned the whole facility. Image courtesy of Observatorio Astronómico Andino.

The mountain retreat not only has some pretty impressive telescopes located in a very secluded area, but it is a breathtaking building as well. The owners spared little expense when designing and decorating this place.  They made it feel like a haven from the city to enjoy the stars.


Patio areas complete with propane heaters and a bar. Image courtesy of Observatorio Astronómico Andino.

It was supposed to rain, so initially the dome cover was kept on, but then our host decided to remove it to give us a feel of what it would be like if there were no clouds.

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M.F. Peterson (ACEAP/NSF)

June 13, 2016, AURA Recinto

Today we flew north to begin our journey of really big telescopes in a lovely city called La Serena.  


M.F. Peterson (ACEAP/NSF)

After we arrived, we went to the AURA Recinto (Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy).  This group manages the National Optical Astronomy Observatories which include CTIO, SOAR, Gemini, and LSST.  It was a very interesting afternoon.  We heard presentations from tourist observatories, teachers as well as staff from AURO.  Even though half of the room only spoke English and half the room only spoke Spanish, you could help but feel the passion that everyone possessed for astronomy education and outreach.  It was delightful.

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Photon detector (left), test chamber (right). M.F. Peterson (ACEAP/NSF)

After the presentations, we took a sneak peek tour of the machine and electronics shop.  It was so neat!  When stuff goes wrong or breaks, these folks create, fabricate and test new parts themselves.  (At right: a custom-built test chamber.)

And if you could look inside one of these engineer’s heads, this is what it would look like:


M.F. Peterson (ACEAP/NSF)

We finished the day with a visit to the Cerro Mayu Observatory.  It was a little cloudy but we still could see stars.  I took my first ever astrophotography pictures, coming soon!  Hopefully next time we will get a nice clear night and be able to see the Magellanic clouds. We’ll see what tomorrow brings, hopefully clear skies.

Written By: Michelle Ferrara Peterson

How Many Stars are Out There?

The numbers used in Astronomy are truly staggering. For starters, the Earth is about 25,000 miles around. The nearest star to us is–obviously–the sun, which is 93 million miles away. To travel that distance, you would have to circle the Earth nearly 4000 times! The larger the numbers get, the harder it gets to understand what they mean.

For example, if someone is a millionaire, they have at least a million dollars. If someone is a billionaire, they have at least a billion dollars. What is the difference between that million and billion? A factor of one thousand! That means that to be a billionaire, you have to make a million dollars one thousand times! Getting to trillions is similarly outrageous. To be a trillionaire, you would have to make a million dollars ONE MILLION TIMES!

Moving back to astronomy, the numbers naturally get even more difficult to understand! We learned from the video that our galaxy has around 300 billion stars! Remember how big a billion was!? Even when Max was typing 3,050,374 zeroes per day, he still had to go on for 270 years to type that many zeroes! Take into account that there are an estimated 100 billion galaxies in our universe, and things really start to get out of hand.

We estimate that the number of stars in the universe is around 70,000,000,000,000,000,000,000. Thats 70 sextillion, or 70 thousand million million million if that helps! For Max to type out that many zeroes would take 62,871,248,000,000 years (62 trillion!). Keep in mind that the accepted age of the universe is only 13.8 billion years. It would take Max over 1,000 times the age of the universe, just to type out the number of zeroes that there are stars in the universe!

Perhaps Neil Degrasse Tyson said it best: “There are more stars in the universe than grains of sand on any beach, more stars than seconds have passed since Earth formed, more stars than words and sounds ever uttered by all the humans who ever lived”.

And it isn’t particularly close. http://www.naturalhistorymag.com/universe/201367/cosmic-perspective?page=2


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