Astronomy “boom” in Chilean universities

Physics Today reports on the hometown effort to train world-class astronomers and engineers for the cutting-edge telescopes sprinkling the Atacama Desert.

The Atacama Pathfinder Experiment radio telescope in the Chajnantor Observatory, Chile. (Photo courtesy of ESO).
The Atacama Pathfinder Experiment radio telescope in the Chajnantor Observatory, Chile. (Photo courtesy of ESO).

Within the decade, Chile will be home to 70 percent of the world’s telescopes. The perennially clear skies of the Atacama Desert – the driest place on Earth – have made this Andean nation home to dozens of high-powered telescopes, and the foremost site of astronomical observation in the world.

In the January 2012 issue of Physics Today, an article titled “Chile aims to better exploit role as telescope host” writes that “the country’s scientists and engineers are starting to take part in the design and construction of telescopes, a trend that could boost other industries and the economy.”

Chile is focusing its efforts on education, increasing the number of astronomy programs at the country’s best universities. In just 10 years, six universities have opened astronomy coursework at the graduate level, in addition to the lauded program at the Universidad de Chile, which was the only program in the country before 2002.

Now, students can pursue classes at the Universidad Católica – recently named one of the best universities in South America – as well as Universidad de Concepción, Universidad de ValparaísoUniversidad Católica del Norte, Universidad de La Serena and Universidad Andrés Bello.

“From here to 2020, [the number of] professional astronomers will have to double in Chile, and it’s most likely that it will happen at the new universities – including private universities – that open astronomy groups and new job positions,” predicted astronomer Patricia Arévalo, president of the Chilean Astronomy Society, in an interview with El Mercurio.

Last year, there were more than 100 post-doctorate astronomy students in Chilean universities, and more than 600 students in total at the undergraduate, master and doctorate levels.

Antonio Hales, astronomer at the ALMA telescope project, said that between 10 and 15 percent of the astronomers at ALMA are Chilean, and more than 90 percent of the engineers are local. According to Hales, the quality of the academic preparation allows Chileans “to compete on the same level as any developed country.”

In addition to the academic advantages of being in close proximity to the epicenter of international astronomy, studying astronomy in Chile puts students in close contact with the recent “Made in Chile” initiative to develop astronomical instruments and software “in house” for use in the cutting-edge telescopes.