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The Atacama Desert

The Atacama Desert

View POV: Nostalgia for the Light: The Atacama Desert in a larger map

Click on the locations above to learn more about locations in the Atacama Desert as profiled in Nostalgia for the Light.


The Atacama Desert in Chile is roughly 600 miles wide running from the border of Peru into Chile. At its center, the Atacama is known as the driest place on Earth. There are stretches where rain has never been recorded, at least as long as humans have measured it. Research suggests that some identifiable river beds have been dry for 120,000 years.

High altitude and aridity provide ideal conditions for observing the sky, and the Atacama Desert has both. As a result, it has become a popular location for observatories.

The European Organisation for Astronomical Research is a research organization for astronomy with 15 member countries that is also known as the European Southern Observatory, or ESO. While the headquarters are in Germany, all ESO operated telescopes and observatories are located in northern Chile.

La Silla Observatory: La Silla, in the southern part of the Atacama Desert, was founded in 1964 and is the ESO’s original observation site. The New Technology Telescope located there employs pioneering adaptive optics scopes. It was the first in the world to have a computer-controlled main mirror (called an “active optics” system), a technology now common in large telescopes.

ALMA Site: The Llano de Chajnantor plateau in the Chilean Andes is the site of a group of ESO observatories, including ALMA (the site discussed in Nostalgia for the Light) and APEX, the pathfinder for the work of ALMA. ALMA has 50 high-precision antennas, and ESO has deemed it “the largest ground-based astronomical project in existence.”

Paranal VLT (Very Large Telescope) SIte: The Paranal site, home of the Very Large Telescope (VLT) array, opened in 1998. It works by creating an artificial star 90 kilometers (about 56 miles) above the surface of the Earth that ultimately allows astronomers to have a crisper view of the sky. This is achieved with a device used to fine-tune the telescope’s optics, allowing astronomers to reconstruct images with a resolution ESO calls “equivalent to distinguishing the two headlights of a car at the distance of the Moon.”

The European Extremely Large Telescope (dubbed E-ELT) is the latest ESO project. It will be built on top of a mountain near Paranal and is to be the largest optical/near-infrared telescope in the world. The organization is calling it “the world’s biggest eye on the sky.” E-ELT is expected to begin operation in 2022.


Other points of interests:

Pisagua, Chile: In 1990, a mass grave, containing 20 bodies of "leftists" taken prisoner after the 1973 coup, was discovered at Pisagua. The discovery renewed talks of military misconduct during those years. While Pisagua was a concentration camp in the mid-20th century, Augusto Pinochet served for two months as its commander.

Chacabuco Concentration Camp: As seen in Nostalgia for the Light, Pinochet was responsible for converting the 19th-century Atacama mining base in the town of Chacabuco into a concentration camp where political prisoners were held. More than 3,200 people were executed or “disappeared” under the Pinochet regime, and thousands more were detained, tortured or exiled.

Yungay: The area around this abandoned mining town is known as the driest place in the Atacama desert, due to it's "double rain shadow." The area has attracted many astrobiologists for its similarities to the surface of Mars, prompting the search for microbial life in the area.

San Pedro de Atacama: Located around an oasis in the Atacama Desert, San Pedro de Atacama was first inhabited by the pre-Columbian Atacameños. A highlight in the town is the R.P. Gustavo Le Paige Archeological Museum which has become a popular tourist attraction housing many Atacameño artifacts from the region.

» Amos, Jonathan. “European Extremely Large Telescope given go-ahead.” BBC News, June 11, 2012.
» ESO. “ESO To Build World’s Biggest Eye on the Sky.”
» ESO. “La Silla.”
» ESO. “Very Large Telescope.”
» ESO. “Welcome to ALMA!”
» Romero, Simon. “At the End of the Earth, Seeking Clues to the Universe.” The New York Times, April 7, 2012.
» "Yungay - the driest place in the world"
» "Chacabuco"
» "Mass Grave Is Grim Chapter in Chilean Village : Human rights: Bodies found at Pisagua were leftists taken prisoner after 1973 coup. Discovery has renewed debate over conduct of military." Los Angeles Times.

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