Cerro Tololo Interamerican Observatory, Chile

September 5th, 2008 by

Linda French

This is being written at the end of a 24+hour trip involving four plane rides and a lost suitcase. Sophomore physics major Kundan Chaudhary and I are on our way to Cerro Tololo Interamerican Observatory near La Serena, Chile. It is about 500 km (300 miles) north of Santiago, and it’s one of the premier observing sites in the world. Northern Chile is the site of the Atacama Desert; although smaller than the Sahara, it’s actually drier. That makes the mountains of Chile among the best places to get above the effects of the Earth’s atmosphere to observe the heavens.

While there are lots of big telescopes here, Kundan and I are going to use a smaller one, with a mirror one meter (about three feet) in diameter. We are looking at asteroids that orbit the Sun at the same distance as Jupiter, further from the Sun than the main asteroid belt. These objects, known as Trojan asteroids for historical reasons, seem to be different from the main belt asteroids in many ways. Their composition appears to be different, for example. They seem to rotate more slowly, and they are more irregular in shape. All of this points to a different life story–a different history–than that of the main belt asteroids, and we are trying to get more information on them.

Our trip here involved flying from Bloomington to Chicago, waiting, catching a flight to Miami, waiting, flying overnight to Santiago, collecting luggage to clear customs, waiting, and then flying to La Serena. I said that it was a good thing that we had the waits in there, since that would give our luggage time to catch us. Well, of course, you guessed it–my bag didn’t make it to Santiago.

We are scheduled to go up the mountain tomorrow, a day early, in order to learn from the previous observer. I have observed here many times, using telescopes smaller and larger than the one for this run, but never this telescope, and it has its quirks. So, a little instruction is in order.

Upon arriving at the offices in La Serena, I went around to see my friends, most of whom I’ve known for 20 years. I got their recommendations for where to go shopping, and it looks as though tomorrow morning will be spent at the mall. Living five minutes away from Eastland Mall, I generally try to stay away as much as possible, but the thought of living in the same clothes until my suitcase arrives is not appealing!

More later.

Posing in the dining room on the mountain, from left: astronomers Thomas de Boer and Eiine Tolstoy of the Kapteyn Astronomical Institute in the Netherlands, Illinois Wesleyan’s Kundan Chaudhary ’11 and Linda French, and Abhijit Saha of Kitt Peak National Observatory in Tucson.