Behind the scenes at Cerro Paranal with Chilean ESO astronomers

Ever wondered what life is like for scientists working on the Very Large Telescope in the Atacama Desert? This is Chile takes you there.

It’s midnight in the Control Room of the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope (VLT), the world’s largest optical instrument. About 15 Staff Astronomers are here hard at work, busily monitoring the room’s array of computer screens.

While the majority of these Staff Astronomers have traveled from overseas to work here in the Atacama Desert, Chileans are also making an impact on this important astronomy facility. In this installment of our “Turning the Telescope” series, we’ll find out more about their unique lives.

Chilean astronomers

Most of ESO’s Cerro Paranal Staff Astronomers are from Europe, but Oscar Gonzalez is one of a handful of Chilean astronomers in the Control Room. Gonzalez was born in Chillán and earned his degree in Astronomy at Universidad Católica. He just started his job at ESO in September 2012 after getting his Ph.D abroad in Germany, and he’s thrilled to be back working in his home country.

“It’s my country here – it’s something that I really missed in Germany. I consider myself very Chilean, so I really wanted to be back,” the astronomer told This is Chile.

Now Gonzalez works the “8/6” schedule, spending eight days living at the Residencia and taking shifts in the VLT Control Room, followed by six days of rest at home in Santiago.

In the Control Room

Gonzalez usually works day shifts in the Control Room. Day shifts require a lot of careful checking and planning of VLT details.

“I come to the Control Room and check that everything went right the night before. If something went wrong, I track back and figure out the problem,” he said. On second part of his shift, he prepares the VLT’s computers for what’s to come that night.

So far, Gonzalez has been having such a great time working at Cerro Paranal, it can sometimes be hard to get him out the door.

“Right now I love it. I’m here [in the Control Room] at night right now when I should be sleeping,” he said with a laugh.

Worth the effort

While Gonzalez has only been a Staff Astronomer for a few months, his Chilean colleague Fernando Selman has been working for ESO in the Atacama Desert for over 10 years. A Senior Astronomer, Selman studied physics at the Universidad de Chile before earning his Ph.D at the California Institute of Technology.

Selman acknowledges that working as an astronomer in the desert is challenging. When they’re not working on ESO’s astronomy projects, Selman and his co-workers are often trying to advance their own personal research projects in their free time.

“My life here is not especially fun – you work very hard,” Selman said.

Nonetheless, the astronomer enjoys the fact that Cerro Paranal’s technology is constantly evolving and advancing, which keeps his work fresh. With new instruments come new techniques and people, he said, and he’s especially excited for ESO’s upcoming Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT).

“This is a unique opportunity for the country,” said Selman on Chile’s role in the E-ELT project. “The E-ELT might be the telescope that discovers life [in outer space]. Chile is in a very unique position.”

This is Chile will check out the future site of the E-ELT in our next installment of “Turning the Telescope.” 

By Liz Rickles