Star-gazing in Northern Chile
by Georgia Gray
The little blue bus trundled out of the town of San Pedro and deep into the dense darkness of the Atacama Desert. My eyes strained, seeking recognisable shapes among the blackness, but to no avail; we were truly in the middle of nowhere. Yet onwards we rattled, ever further into the wilderness of Northern Chile towards an empty spot free from light pollution – ideal for stargazing.
“I’m sorry,” sighed the guide as we arrived, shaking his head. “The visibility isn’t great tonight, but we’re hoping the sky will clear.” I looked up – the remnants of a fierce storm that had been whipped up seemingly out of nowhere earlier that day still lingered over the sky, shrouding the planets and stars that we had all travelled all this way to see. This was my last chance to see the South Hemisphere sky in all its glory, yet the clouds, annoyingly, were stopping me.
The guide began to talk, and what would have been grippingly interesting in any other circumstance was undermined by acute disappointment; there was a limit on how much enjoyment could be gained from a stargazing tour with no stars, and the clouds showed no sign of giving up their hostages.
Then, as the guide weaved slowly through thousands of years of astronomical history, we were blessed with a miracle; the clouds began to ease, little by little, separating like a pair of giant celestial curtains to reveal the stars. At first I could only see a few, and then as the clouds pulled further back, there were hundreds and thousands.
It was almost as though a bag of silver glitter had spilled over a black velvet tablecloth. As they appeared from behind the thick clouds, without city lights, an illuminating glow was produced over the desert that even the sun would have been jealous of. Then the fun really began. We picked out constellations from the creamy, translucent sweep of the Milky Way.
I could make out the Hubble Space Telescope, doing its rounds while meteors swept past in front of it. Through monstrously powerful telescopes we saw the craters of the Moon and the rings of Saturn, as crisp and clear as if they were on Earth.
We were told mindboggling statistics about the universe we inhabit until I was lost in a wave of numbers so great that my brain could not even begin to compute them, numbers so huge that nothing in my experience could serve as a comparison.
That desert night in Northern Chile had chilled us to our bones and we retreated to a cosy, dimly-lit hut to huddle up and drink hot chocolate. A delicious surge of warmth spread over me as we sat, sipped, and contemplated our insignificance in awe-induced silence.