仰望夜空 Eyes on the skies
In one of the darkest places on Earth there's a cluster of telescopes that examine the heavens each night, sending detailed information about the celestial bodies they observe to astronomers across the planet. Far from any population centers or light pollution, the Atacama Desert is the world's driest nonpolar desert. It's the perfect place for La Silla Observatory, one of the largest observatories in the Southern Hemisphere, and the first to be used by the European Southern Observatory (ESO), a research organization made up of astronomers from 16 European nations. The first ESO telescope at the La Silla site in Chile began operating in 1966.
And what better place to spend World Astronomy Day? Started in 1973 by Doug Berger, the president of the Astronomical Association of Northern California, Berger's initial intent was to set up various telescopes in busy urban locations so that passersby could enjoy views of the heavens. Since then, the event has expanded and is now sponsored by several organizations associated with astronomy. The springtime Astronomy Day is mirrored by another in the fall between mid-September and mid-October.
Shrouded in snow on the summit of Mount Hamilton, in the Diablo Range just east of San Jose, California, lies the world's first permanently occupied mountaintop observatory. Constructed between 1876 and 1887, the Lick Observatory has been the site of significant discoveries including several of Jupiter's moons and other planetary systems. It's named for American real-estate entrepreneur James Lick, who set aside $700,000 for the University of California to build a facility that would be home to a 'telescope superior to and more powerful than any telescope yet made.'
His wish came true. The 36-inch refracting telescope on Mount Hamilton was the largest that had ever been built from when it saw first light on January 3, 1888, until the construction of the 40-inch refractor at Wisconsin's Yerkes Observatory in 1897. Sadly, Lick died before his vision became a reality, but his name lives on. His body is even buried beneath the telescope, which continues to scan the skies today.
Kjell Henriksen Observatory
While these domes look like they should be in a movie set depicting a galaxy far, far away, they're actually part of a scientific research station here on planet Earth. Kjell Henriksen Observatory is named for a Norwegian scientist whose research focused on polar lights. The aurora borealis is frequently seen here, deep within the Arctic Circle on Norway's remote Svalbard territory. And the observatory is specially designed to observe the aurora. Since it opened in 2008, the observatory has become a destination for atmospheric scientists, who can rent one of these thirty glass-topped rooms built to house high-end optical instruments.
Happy Astronomy Day!
No, that's not a downpour of lightsabers—but it's no typical night sky either. Stargazing here at Paranal Observatory, on a mountaintop in Chile's desolate Atacama Desert, you'll get one of the clearest possible naked-eye views of the southern skies. This 'lightsaber' effect comes from the photo's long exposure: What we're seeing is these stars' paths as they track across the night sky due to our planet's rotation. The dazzling colors indicate temperature, from chilly red (5,000-ish degrees Fahrenheit) to balmy blue (temps in the tens of thousands).
What about those structures beneath the starry sky? They're three of the eight telescopes making up the Very Large Telescope, an aptly named project of the European Southern Observatory. Together the telescopes compose photographs of astronomically fine focus: If you were to drive a car on the surface of the moon (which we don't advise trying), the VLT could snap a crystal-clear shot of your headlights.