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The Magical Sky

While researching places to visit in Chile, I stumbled upon two videos that captured my imagination. One was a video called "A Story of Tomorrow" featuring most of the spectacular spots in Chile from the north to the south. This video inspired me to go to Pucon.

The second one was one of the night sky in Atacama.

Atacama is considered as one of the best places to do star gazing. It offers clear skies almost all round the year. It has a number of "Very Large Telescope" observatories peppered through out. This inspired me to go north to San Pedro de Atacama a small town in the middle of Atacama.

I was suggested to contact an agency called "Observacion del cielo austral" who conduct star gazing tours from San Pedro. The tour is conducted by Spaceobsstarted by a French astronomer Alain and his team in English, Spanish and French. Due to bad weather, few of the recent tours had been canceled. The weather gods showed me mercy and cleared the skies on the day of my tour.

I had booked for the English tour (finally something in ingles!!) which would last for two and a half hours starting at 9.30 in the evening. I was bundled with a group of Americans, Canadians and Australians and whisked to the middle of the desert. The bus slithered through the desert to a spot off the main road guided by a set of lights like an air strip.

We were greeted by the guide for the day, Les Nagy; a hilarious Canadian astronomer who moved to Atacama for his love of the sky and who talks like Anthony Bourdain. Blankets were offered to people who forgot that nights are cold in Atacama.

I really wish I had a recording of Les's tour of the sky. It was a well planned and performed act like a magic trick. It had a Pledge, a Turn and a Prestige.

The Pledge

We were standing in a light glow from the sky filled with hundreds of stars. The Milky Way spread overhead exactly like I had seen in the video. I soon realized that the moon was missing from the sky! The whole ground was lit with pale blue only by the stars above us!! This in itself was a awe inspiring sight and we were just getting started.

Les explained that it was not the best sky with the black patches of the clouds blocking some areas. The tour started by transporting us back thousands of years, when our ancestors observed the sky with the naked eye.

Soon we were on our way of identifying the Southern Crossand hence the southern pole on the sky where no star is present!! The north star had already set and was below thehorizon. Now that we were oriented in the sky, we started identifying the "wandering stars (planets)". We were able to see Mars andSaturn high above our heads.

Our ancestors being hunter gathers; with lots of time to spare started drawing shapes in the sky and giving rise to all theconstellationswe know today as the zodiac. It seemed they were drinking while they were doing this because as we moved from Gemini through the zodiac,it required all the imagination that one could posses torecognizethe shapes in the sky!

Our ancestors soon realized they could use the stars to track seasons. They in-turn built the Stonehenge to keep track of the stars. Some brilliant people thought if stars can predict the season then it could predict humans leading to the formation of early Astrology.

For years the sky was justtwinkling stars, five planets, the sun and the moon circling around the earth inside different spheres.

The Turn

By now we wereacquainted with major parts of the sky which our naked eye could make out. It was all about to change thanks toGalileo Galileiand Nicolaus Copernicus. We all know the bloody battle which raged afterwards. Finally with the telescope and much needed proof we knew the skies as we know it today.

We were all led totwelve telescopes of different kinds, shapes and sizes, setup all over the field. Soon we identified Sirius, gas clouds in the milky way, starclusters likeOmega Centauri all the whilediscussing Light Year, distances of stars and colours of stars.

A few telescopes were motorized designed to follow the point in the sky all through the night. These were pointed at Mars (supposed to be red even though I didn't see the color) and Saturn (surreal with its rings). As we moved along, the size of the telescopes kept increasing. The brightest star Siriusthrough the telescope looked spectacular. The Omega Centauri made up of young stars all of the same brightness and same age (formed from the same gas cloud) could be seen clearly. The Jewel Box looked vibrant made up of stars of different colours. A few of stars that we saw through the telescope have already escaped the confines of my brain.

The images seen through the telescopes are so spectacular, it made me think if all this was a trick!

The Prestige

Take the telescopes away then everything seems normal. Its just the night sky. Even if its a spectacular one. We all went towards a small hut illuminated by dull red light from the telescope field. The third part of the tour is a Q&A session with Les and a large cup of hot chocolate (drink orders were taken during blanket time).

The atacama desert is the location of constant astronomical activity. Our discussions during the hot chocolate ranged from ALMAwhich will soon be the world largest telescope to Google and James Cameron's audacious plans for asteroid mining. I came to know that at any moment one can see 3000 stars in the sky (without a telescope).

As the hot chocolate emptied I realized that this magical act is about to end. We got on the bus amazed at the things I had learnt. For the whole journey back I could not take my eyes off the sky. Truly Magical.

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