Behind-the-scenes at the Paranal Residencia in Chile’s Atacama

In the second installment of our series on ESO’s Very Large Telescope site, This is Chile explores the living quarters of astronomers working in the Atacama Desert. 

The Atacama Desert’s high altitude, dry climate, and extreme isolation is perfect for exploring the distant universe with the Very Large Telescope (VLT), but it’s not ideal for the more than 100 ESO employees that must make the site their home.
For this reason, ESO constructed the Paranal Residencia in 2002, an incredible retreat from the area’s harsh climate just minutes away from the VLT. In the second installment of our “Turning the Telescope” series, we’re exploring what it takes to turn the middle of the desert into a state-of-the-art oasis for astronomers from around the world.
A look inside the Residencia
The Residencia’s sand-colored, subterranean structure appears to emerge straight out of the desert – a look so exotic, it was utilized as the set of the villain’s lair in the James Bond movie Quantum of Solace.
Stepping inside the Residencia brings immediate relief from the driest place on earth. Humidified air, a tropical garden, and a swimming pool all provide a haven for employees working in the extreme conditions of the remote desert.
Natural light from an enormous glass dome bathes the interior of the Residencia in a warm glow. At dusk, a special “light-tight” fabric paneling spreads over the dome, preventing the building’s light from interfering with astronomical observations.
The Residencia offers 108 dormitory rooms, and about 120 people live at the facility at any given time – about 10% of which are astronomers. ESO employees here are typically on the “8-6” schedule, meaning they have eight days of work living at the Residencia followed by six days of vacation to head home and spend time with their families.
Managing the Residencia
Running a remote location in the desert is no small task. Mauro Cavada is the Residencia’s Logistics Supervisor, and he’s responsible for making the site function smoothly – from staff shuttles to Antofagasta, to dining hall meals and recreation facilities.
“Our job is to keep people as happy and comfortable as they can be when they come here from around the world,” Cavada told This is Chile.
According to Cavada, the Residencia receives a delivery of fresh food and three trucks of water each week. About 450 meals are prepared and served each day in the Residencia’s dining hall, and an impressive range of dishes is offered in order to meet the varied tastes and needs of ESO’s international staff.
The Future
The Extremely Large Telescope, ESO’s next project in the Atacama Desert, is already underway and set for completion around 2021. This means the Residencia will soon be expanding to house even more astronomers and staff.
Luckily, innovative architects Auer and Weber Freie Architekten of Germany designed the Residencia as a modular concept, with the potential to easily extend the building to include more rooms.
For more information
The Residencia is not open to the public, but to get a better look at this unique structure, check out this video for a short ESO documentary with footage from the filming of Quantum of Solace.
Coming up next in our “Turning the Telescope” series, we’ll talk with two Chilean astronomers about living and working at Cerro Paranal.
By Liz Rickles.