New Time-Lapse Gives Rare Glimpse at Atacama’s Starry Nights

(Make sure to watch this full-screen with the sound on!)

It’s cold, it’s dry, the air is thin. The nearest city is miles away across a barren landscape of boulder-strewn hills. At night, the only lights to guide you are the stars in the sky. Astronomers, welcome to paradise.

Known as the driest place on Earth, Chile’s Atacama Desert has long been recognized as an ideal spot for ground-based telescopes. The skies are free of light pollution, and the high plains enjoy long stretches of steady atmospheric conditions, allowing astronomers to peer deeply into the cosmos without having to worry about turbulence distorting the data.

(Related blog: “The Dry Edge of Life—Studying ‘Martians’ in Chile.”)

In the new time-lapse movie above, photographers Christoph Malin and Babak Tafreshi (founder of The World at Night, or TWAN, program) offer a rarely seen glimpse of Cerro Paranal, one of the high hills in the Atacama that houses instruments for the European Southern Observatory (ESO).

Made by invitation from the ESO, the video includes more than 7,500 still images taken between October and November 2011. It shows the beauty of the dark Atacama skies, sometimes framed by the four main domes of the Very Large Telescope, as well as a brief “behind the scenes” look at what telescope operators see from inside one of the domes.

Photograph by Babak Tafreshi

In an email to National Geographic, Tafreshi says of the Atacama:

There are not many locations left on this planet where you can still experience a dark sky like this. I have been to similar dark skies in other continents, from the heart of Sahara in Algeria to Himalayas or islands in the Pacific. But what makes Atacama beat others is being dry and clear for so many nights per year.

It’s not permitted for tourists and regular visiting groups to stay on Paranal at night time, as it might affect the expensive work time of the ultrahigh-precision telescopes. However, to enjoy the stunning night sky of Atacama it’s not necessary to be on this mountain or exactly this region. … [You] just need to be far from the few main cities in the area and the dusty mine industry. Some of our footage in this video is also made from mountains and desert areas some kilometers away from Paranal.

Walking on the desert near Paranal between the scattered stones and boulders on the pale red dust feels like being on Mars, but under the Earth sky.

One of the most astonishing experiences under such a starry sky is the view of the Milky Way. In several scenes of the film, the setting arc of the Milky Way is captured over the cloud-covered Pacific coastline. The band of the Milky Way is bulged and becomes most brilliant toward the galactic center in the constellation Sagittarius, which is prominent in these scenes. Watching the arc of the Milky Way near the desert horizon is a true scene of science fiction.

Photograph by Babak Tafreshi

Malin adds:

It is of course kind of sad that Paranal is not open to the public, but it is a remote place, operated in a very extreme desert environment. … Safety precaucions are omnipresent at Paranal—the place is extremely well organized. … Paranal is organized down to the minute for every day and hour, 365 days per year, to utilize the instrument research time the best possible.

That said, it is still sad, because this magic place shows … how the nights on our planet can truly look like if there is no light pollution. Those are silent, peaceful nights. In pauses when all equipment is running, and you have a moment off, you get immediately thrown back to yourself and to your role in the universe, in a direct, straightforward way just by watching that beautifully glowing night sky. In fact, if you stand there, you see a shadow of your feet just from the light of the Milky Way.

In Europe you have to climb some remote, distant peaks, hike into the most remote, hidden valleys, search for dark places in national parks, fly to the islands to experience such a raw, unspoiled beauty of the starry skies. In this respect, it is a good movement that the Chilean government/tourism board is actively marketing their beautiful night skies and trying to protect them at the same time. I hope that other countries will also start to work on those topics.

Astronomer’s Paradise is just the first installment in Tafreshi and Malin’s “Atacama Starry Nights” series. The next time-lapse movie, to be released in March, will focus on the northern Atacama, the Valley of the Moon, and another major observatory, the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array, or ALMA.

Photograph by Babak Tafreshi

Video and photos are copyright Christoph Malin and/or Babak Tafreshi. Used with permission.

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