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Enough to take your breath away: Observatories in the Atacama Desert, Chile.

Very Large Telescope Laser Guided Star.

The first post in today's astronomical theme looked at the new high-resolution image of the centre of the Milky Way produced by the Paranal Observatory in Cerro Paranal, Chile. In this post we look at several of the other observatories located or planned in the Atacama Desert.

The Atacama Desert in Chile is generally considered to be the driest place on earth. It is also very high around 5,600m (3.5 miles) in altitude meaning the atmosphere is relatively thin. This means there is less dust and other pollutants to obscure images of the stars.

For earth-bound astronomers, these conditions are as good as it gets for gazing into the universe. As a result, there are a number of powerful observatories completed, under construction or planned that will continually scan the heavens with a variety of optical and electronic instruments. We look at some of the main ones below.

The Paranal Observatory in Cerro Paranal that produced the new image of the Milky Way has four identical instruments capable of viewing infra-red and visible radiation known as the Very Large Telescope (VLT). Each of the instruments has a primary mirror of 8.5m diameter. There is another telescope on the site known as the VST Survey telescope.

The ALMAis a large millimetre and sub-millimetre array. It is a radio telescope where signals detected by the individual dishes are combined in order to amplify them. The combination of receivers behave as a single large radio telescope.

ALMA is operational, but is only about half completed as new receivers are still being constructed and added to the array.

The Cornel Caltec Telescopeis an observatory that is still in design. It will have a 25m dish diameter and will operate in the 200 – 2,200 micrometre spectrum. It will be located on Cerro Chajnantor.

Paranal Observatory VLT array.

Very Large Telescope array with the Survey telescope to the right.

The survey telescope.

An image of the ALMA radio telescope array when completed.

An image of the Cornel Caltex telescope as envisaged.

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